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One would think that Airbus could have made much more traction on sales during Boeing's Dreamliner debacle, but its failure to totally dominate the wide-body field speaks to its own recent manufacturing challenges.

Airbus SAS is looking to build momentum for the new A350, with its sales chief criss-crossing the globe to chase orders while test pilots and engineers race toward first flight as the Paris Air Show approaches.

With 10 days left before the industry’s premiere expo, the wide-body plane made of composite plastic has started pre-flight taxiing tests and Airbus has picked the crew of the A350s maiden flight. John Leahy, head of sales, skipped a two-day media briefing at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, to clinch orders he can add to the 35 for the model this year alone.

The European planemaker is marketing its A350 to challenge Boeing Co.’s 787 and best-selling 777-300ER. Underscoring the neck-and-neck race in the wide-body aircraft market, where margins are higher than for smaller planes, was a $17 billion purchase by Singapore Airlines Ltd. last week which the carrier split between the two manufacturers.

“We’re ready to go,” said Pascal Verneau, the 51-year-old flight engineer who’ll sit between the two test pilots in the cockpit of the first A350 set to leave the ground. “Personally, I hope we’ll fly before the air show.”

Airbus Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier told journalists yesterday that the A350, which first emerged fully painted from its hangar last month, was in good shape and would likely meet a company forecast for first flight by midyear.

Encouraging tests

“I have pilots who tell me that from the results of the simulations the quality of the aircraft is better than on in- service aircraft for previous types of the fleet,” Bregier said. “This is encouraging.”

As aerospace companies converge on Paris for the industry’s largest trade event of the year, Airbus will face Boeing as it emerges from a three-month grounding of its marquee 787 Dreamliner following battery malfunctions. Boeing plans to showcase the Dreamliner in Paris, while Airbus hasn’t committed to the A350 making an appearance.

Airbus will need a good showing with the A350 as its U.S. rival seeks pledges for a 777 successor to help halt Airbus’s advance into the wide-body market, which Boeing still dominates. Both companies also compete in the market for the largest jumbos, though Airbus hasn’t secured a firm new order so far this year for its A380 and Boeing will cut output for its 747-8 amid slack demand.

Trial series

The maiden flight of the A350 will kick off a yearlong series of trials featuring five test planes. That’s more than used for the A380 program a decade ago so the planemaker can cram more work into fewer months, A350 program director Didier Evrard said. The full flight-test program will require 2,500 hours of flight spread over the five test planes.

Relatively little is left to do before the plane can fly. After applying power on June 2 to the Trent XWB engines made by Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc, the plane taxied for the first time at low speeds this week.

A glitch in the software that controls signaling is being worked through now, after which the plane will proceed to run taxi tests at increasingly higher speeds until the 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.

Verneau, the flight-test engineer and one of six people on the maiden voyage, said he’s been working flat out and through weekends, as the suspense of first flight builds. Already a flight engineer on the A380 and A340-600 test programs, Verneau said he doesn’t anticipate any vacation until Christmas.

“This is a baby,” he said, gesturing at the A350-900 painted in Airbus corporate livery as the 219-foot (67 meter) long plane sat gleaming in the sun of southwestern France. “It’s in my hands!”


With assistance from Robert Wall in London. Editors: Benedikt Kammel, Christopher Jasper. To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Rothman in Toulouse at [email protected]. To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at [email protected]. 

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Tags: airbus, Boeing, dreamliner

Photo credit: The vertical tail wing of the first Airbus A350 is seen on the final assembly line in Toulouse. John Philippe Arles / Reuters

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