PARIS, June 13 (Reuters) - Europe’s Airbus plans to increase the seating capacity on its most popular single-aisle jet, the medium-haul A320 models, stepping up competition with U.S. rival Boeing in the largest slice of the global jet market.
The more densely arranged cabins will be available early next year after European authorities agreed to allow Airbus to use bigger evacuation slides, which are one of the parameters for deciding how many people an aircraft is authorised to carry.
The move comes as Airbus advances towards first flight of an upgraded version of its A320 jets equipped with new engines, due to enter service in the fourth quarter of 2015.
Klaus Roewe, senior vice president of the aircraft project, said the revamped A320neo would “comfortably beat” a target of reducing overall fuel consumption by 15 percent, compared with the existing A320 model.
More seats also mean lower operating costs per seat - the key driver of aircraft economics.
The changes will allow Airbus to increase the certified maximum number of seats for its A320 model to 189 seats from 180 seats, starting with the existing version in early 2015.
The capacity of the A321 will increase to 240 seats from 220 seats, delivering fuel savings of 6 percent per seat due also to other improvements in the cabin layout, Roewe said.
Airbus competes with U.S. rival Boeing for sales of such single-aisle jets estimated at $2 trillion over 20 years, making up the largest segment of the civil aerospace industry.
Experts say each seat on a single-aisle aircraft like the A320 or Boeing 737 is worth some $1 million to an airline over its lifespan - twice that for larger wide-body jets - so fine-tuning the operating costs per seat is crucial to winning sales.
Boeing said adding seats to the A320neo would merely close a gap in capacity with the revamped 737 MAX 8, its 189-seat-capacity answer to the A320neo, but that it may leapfrog its European rival by raising the number of seats further.
“We can accommodate adding more seats to the MAX 8 and are gauging market interest,” Keith Leverkuhn, vice president and general manager of the 737 MAX project, said in an emailed statement.
The Wall Street Journal reported that Boeing might lift the seat count as far as 199 people, the maximum allowed before incurring the cost of an extra flight attendant. Airlines must provide one flight attendant for every 50 passengers.
Boeing declined to comment.
The development of revamped jets promising about 15 percent fuel savings has led to record production rates and pushed up shares of both manufacturers, but provoked a struggle for market share as Boeing tries to compensate for its rival’s head start.
A less visible but potentially decisive struggle between the two leading planemakers is opening up over the way in which the planes on order will be produced. Eliminating costly mistakes can help profit margins but also market share, as new orders in this category are won or lost on small differences in price.
Roewe said Airbus had applied over 2,000 lessons from the A350 and A380 projects to try to eliminate glitches that affect any new aircraft, bringing the aerospace industry closer towards quality control techniques pioneered by the car industry. (Additional reporting by Cyril Altmeyer; Editing by Sophie Walker)