Airbus Scouts India in Search of That Elusive Widebody Customer

The European planemaker has doubled down on efforts to sell its A350 jets to local carriers in recent days.

Airbus Scouts India in Search of That Elusive Widebody Customer
An Airbus SE A350-1000 aircraft performs maneuvers during the Singapore Airshow. (Photographer: Lauryn Ishak/Bloomberg)

Airbus SE has tried for years to find a new customer for its bigger jets in India, the world’s fastest growing aviation market before Covid shattered travel. Two of its previous buyers went bankrupt, while another was sold, giving arch rival Boeing Co. a firm foothold in the South Asian nation’s market for transcontinental planes.

Remi Maillard, the chief of Airbus’s Indian unit, reckons things are about to change. The European planemaker has doubled down on efforts to sell its A350 jets to local carriers in recent days, with a specific eye on formerly state-run Air India Ltd., which under its new owners -- conglomerate Tata Group -- needs to revamp its fleet of Boeing 777 jets. 

“We believe the A350 will trigger a tectonic shift, a change of paradigm in long-haul travel that matches the aspiration of India and its people,” Maillard told reporters in the southern city of Hyderabad, where top aviation executives and government officials have gathered this week for the Wings India airshow. “The A350 will play a strategic role in this transformation.”

Airbus flew an A350 to three major Indian cities over the past three days, showcasing the jet to potential customers and media. On Tuesday, Ratan Tata, the Tata Group patriarch who was recently named chairman of Air India, also toured the plane, images posted on social media show.

Boeing and Airbus are in talks with the new owners of Air India about an order for a raft of new jets, Bloomberg News reported last month. Those discussions involve both A350-900s and 787-9 Dreamliners. 

Air India has a fleet of 16 Boeing 777 jets, with an average age of more than 12 years, according to Of its relatively newer fleet of 27 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, seven are grounded. 

In India, “widebody fleets have remained mostly stagnant for 20 years while single aisle fleets multiplied by factor of six,” Maillard said. “The growth in the domestic market for the last 20 years will be seen in the international market now.”

Time Is Right 

Airbus, formed through an amalgamation of European planemakers in 1970, previously sold its A380 superjumbos to liquor baron Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher Airlines Ltd., but the airline collapsed under a pile of debt and the order was canceled. Jet Airways India Ltd., which operated A330 jets, also went belly up in 2019, while Air India returned its A330s last decade. 

Airbus’s lack of success selling widebody planes to Indian carriers contrasts sharply with what it’s achieved with narrowbody aircraft. IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd., is the world’s biggest customer for A320neo jets, and the local affiliates of Singapore Airlines Ltd. and AirAsia all operate A320 family. Tata Group is the majority owners in both of those ventures. 

IndiGo, which once considered buying the international operations of Air India, also held conversations with Airbus and Boeing to buy widebody planes, although that plan was later shelved. Budget carrier SpiceJet Ltd. held talks too but has so far stayed away from placing an order. 

India will need 2,210 aircraft by 2040, Airbus predicted earlier Thursday. While most of them will be smaller jets, 440 planes will be capable of flying long distances, and the market will grow at the world’s fastest pace of 6.3% annually for the period, it said. 

“The center of gravity of aviation is moving east and is on the high trajectory to land in India,” Maillard said. “The time is right for India to turn into an international hub. Long haul will grow massively for the next 10 years due to India’s geographic dividend, demographic dividend and economic dividend.” 

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