The American aerospace company Boeing has raised concerns over the design of British arch-rival Airbus’ newest narrow-body jet, the A321XLR, saying the new type of fuel tank could pose fire risks.
Boeing’s intervention is not uncommon in a global system that regularly allows manufacturers to step in whenever safety rules are being interpreted in a way that might affect the rest of the industry.
But it comes at a vital moment as Boeing emerges from a two-year safety crisis over its 737 MAX, and Airbus faces its own crucial test from regulators worldwide following the MAX’s 20-month grounding.
In a submission to the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Boeing said the architecture of a fuel tank intended to increase the A321XLR’s range “presents many potential hazards.”
The debate surrounds the hot-selling A321XLR’s main marketing point which claims to be the longest range of any single-aisle jet.
In most jets, fuel is carried in wings and central tanks. To meet demand for longer routes, Airbus has already added optional extra fuel tanks inside the cargo bay of some A321s. For the A321XLR, Airbus plans to make more space for fuel by molding one tank directly into the main body of the aircraft (fuselage), meaning its shape would allow it to carry more fuel.
The concept caught the attention of EASA, which in January said it would impose special conditions to keep passengers safe. “An integral fuselage fuel tank exposed to an external fire, if not adequately protected, may not provide enough time for the passengers to safely evacuate the aircraft,” it said.
Such technical exchanges rarely capture the attention of the authorities. But the aerospace industry has been shaken due to the COVID-19 and continuous accidents and are currently focusing a lot more on safety.
In Airbus’ case, commercial stakes are also high. One industry source familiar with the project warned that any extended discussions over certification could delay the A321XLR’s service entry from “late 2023” to 2024 or beyond.