Airbus's most profitable long-distance jet, the A330, is getting a limited makeover to improve its range, it said at the Farnborough Airshow on Monday.
A partial redesign of the A330 wing will add two tonnes to the amount of payload and fuel it can carry at take-off, potentially extending its range to connect London and Tokyo, Airbus said.
The plans, unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow, are intended to breathe new life into a jet that has enjoyed a second-order honeymoon due to 787 delays, but which now faces a challenge from a planned lightweight stretch called the 787-10.
Airbus sales chief John Leahy said the A300, which first entered service in the 1990s, would remain in service for many more years.
"I'll be in retirement by the time the A330 is retired," Leahy, 61, told a news conference.
Industry sources say Airbus is, however, sensitive to the way the changes are being marketed as it remains a member of the metal club compared with Boeing's mainly carbon-composite 787.
The limited design changes confirm that Airbus has decided against a deeper overhaul for the A330 with new engines, unlike the smaller A320, which has proved very popular with airlines thanks to new fuel-saving engines.
Airbus said it hoped to announce a customer for the enhanced A330, due in service in mid-2015, during this week's air show.
"We've already had three airlines and one leasing company saying 'Can't you get it for early 2015'," Leahy said.
"We could maybe get it a few months early but summer 2015 is target for now," he said.
The 240-tonne A330-300 will now be able to fly up to 11,020 km, while the new A330-200 will fly to a range of 13,060 km.
This means, for example, that the A330-300 can now connect new city pairs such as London to Tokyo, Frankfurt to Cape Town, or Beijing to Melbourne.
The A330 twin-jet is a sister aircraft of the Airbus A340, a larger four-engine model whose production has now been halted.
Since the aircraft share the same wing, the end of the A340 allows Airbus to clean up some of its features and increase the maximum take-weight and thus extend its range.
Keeping the A330 in shape for new orders is seen as an important goal for Airbus because its development costs are paid for and it provides a second important source of cash for other riskier plane projects, alongside the best-selling A320.