Airbus SAS engineers are working 13-hour days to get the company’s latest A350 plane off the ground in time to scoop the headlines at next month’s Paris air show.
A flight around the year’s biggest aviation expo, starting June 17, would let Airbus steal the limelight from Boeing Co., which aims to use the event to spur orders for an updated 777 and revitalize the 787 program hit by a months-long grounding.
Getting the wide-body A350 aloft would repeat Airbus’s splash at the last Paris show in 2011, which the European manufacturer dominated with $44 billion worth of orders for the A320neo. While Boeing hit back at the 2012 Farnborough jamboree in England with a welter of deals for the 737 Max, the 787 troubles has taken the gloss off its French prospects.
“A first flight by Paris would bring a huge credibility boost for Airbus just as people are having doubts about Boeing’s execution,” according to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of U.S.-based Teal Group, who says the 787’s woes and slow progress with the 777 revamp give Airbus a “window of opportunity.”
The long-range A350 is designed to take on both Boeing models, with the 300-seat A350-900 — the first to fly — and the smaller A350-800 competing with the 787 and 777-200, and the A350-1000, seating 350, challenging the 777-300ER and new 777X. The mid-sized version costs $287.7 million at list price.
Airbus’s first new jet since the A380 superjumbo won’t need to appear in Paris to be the top talking point, with a maiden takeoff from the Toulouse production site likely to be enough to outshine Boeing. The chances of a flight during the event rose when the first operational plane emerged from the paint shop yesterday, replete with an Airbus logo and A350 name on its white fuselage.
EADS Chief Financial Officer Harald Wilhelm called the A350 program “challenging” today, an attribute the company has used in the past to describe the project. Still, the company is more confident of a first flight by this “summer.” “The important thing is that it’s a mature first flight,” Wilhelm said on a call to discuss EADS’s first-quarter earnings.
With the A350 due to enter commercial service with Qatar Airlines Ltd. by the end of next year, achieving a timely first flight would be a coup for Airbus after the 787 made its initial takeoff two years late and began deliveries three years overdue.
That’s before the Dreamliner was pulled from service in January, triggering a near five-month grounding. The European company’s own A380 was also handed over three years late and has so far failed to make any money for the manufacturer.
Airbus is in a position to land a blow against Boeing in Paris after taking a conservative approach in developing the A350 that sought to avoid the pitfalls of previous projects.
Buyers have been given a strict list of cabin options, after unlimited choice on the A380 led to complex wiring that caused delays. And while the A350 is half-composite, its fuselage has a skeletal structure overlaid with light composite panels instead of the more radical full-barrel composite sections of the 787.
Airbus has also been less aggressive in using electrical power to run plane functions, relying to a greater extent on bleed power, or hot air pulled from engines instead of heavy electrical generation on-board. After the 787’s grounding over glitches with innovative lithium-ion batteries, Airbus reverted to proven nickel cadmium to avoid certification difficulties.
Countdown to Takeoff
“The biggest lessons we can draw from the past is that we need to move from one step to the other on these big programs, without rushing,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier said at last summer’s Farnborough show.
Since then, progress has been sufficiently brisk for A350 engineers to view mid-June as a target for its first flight, even if the official goal remains a less specific “mid-2013,” according to Bregier.
Gilles Fournier, managing director for the Paris air show, told journalists last month he expects the A350 to fly by the start of the event, though there are no firm plans for a visit.
Airbus first moved the A350 out of its hangar in February for radio and pressurization tests, and procedures to check fuel tank tightness as well as fuel transfer.
In March, the plane was fitted with its two Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc engines and an auxiliary power unit and underwent analysis of instruments to check that the resonance frequencies of the structure remained within the allowed margin for flight tests.
The A350’s program head, Didier Evrard, is leading efforts to get the plane airborne, arriving at the factory before 7 a.m. and leaving after 8 p.m.
Having been painted, the A350 will shortly be turned over to pilots and flight-test engineers, who will monitor it from the first flight through more than 12 months of rigorous trials culminating in certification and service entry.
Tests to be done before the aircraft gets airborne include running engines through controlled cycles, taxiing at low and high speeds, and a a so-called rejected takeoff at high velocity to check that brakes, spoilers and thrust reversers all work properly to bring the aircraft to a controlled standstill.
An A350 flight by mid-June could have a snowball effect for Airbus, building sales momentum for the A350-1000 variant due to begin deliveries in 2017, even as Boeing seeks to drum up orders for the competing 777X, according to Teal Group’s Aboulafia.
The U.S. company’s ongoing issues with the 787 mean it has only just begun marketing the re-winged and re-engined 777, and hasn’t yet committed to going ahead with a plane that wouldn’t enter service before the end of the decade. Already last month, British Airways parent International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, a major 777 customer, signed a contract for 18 A350-1000s.
Still, the remaining A350 testing schedule may not be plain sailing, with scope remaining for hitches with the plane’s electronic systems during final trials, according to Tecop International President Hans Weber, a physicist and aerospace expert who advises the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
“Software glitches are one of the biggest worries in these systems,” Weber said in an interview. “Everything on the plane is ultimately controlled by software, and it can be a lengthy effort to find a glitch and fix it.”
Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners in London who has followed the aviation industry for 30 years, said Airbus has “played it straight” with the A350 program in not announcing milestones before they’re genuinely achievable.
“Having the A350 fly by the Paris air show would be great from a prestige point of view,” he said. “But they’ll only do it if they’re really comfortable. They’re not going to be pushed.”
With assistance from Robert Wall in London. Editors: Christopher Jasper and Benedikt Kammel.
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