MIAMI — With the first Airbus A350 XWB Extra Wide Body scheduled to be delivered to launch customer Qatar Airways on Monday, December 22, AirwaysNews decided to take a look at the history of the program, which officially launched with production go ahead on December 1, 2006, with the first flight on June 14, 2013.
The A350 XWB was seen as a response to both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the 777. The aircraft’s use of advanced durable, lightweight, and low-maintenance materials such as carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, advanced aluminum, and titanium comprise more than 70 percent of the aircraft. Airbus claims the lighter weight fuselage and wings, coupled with the new, more-efficient Rolls Royce Trent engines not only makes it 25 percent more fuel efficient then aircraft it is due to replace, but is substantially quieter as well (up to 14 db below ICAO Chapter 4 regulations).
The manufacturer initially planned for three models in the family:
the A350-800, -900, and -1000, which seat between 270 and 350 passengers in typical three-class layouts with maximum range between 8,480 and 10,300 nautical miles. The A350 family has already secured 778 firm orders from 41 customers worldwide including additional industry luminaries Air France/KLM, US Airways, Hawaiian, Emirates, Ethiad, Aeroflot, Air Lingus, TAM, Singapore Airlines, and Thai. Though Hawaiian switched their 6 orders from the virtually cancelled A350-800 to the A330 neo earlier this week.
The airplane received its first orders in 2007, first from Finnair, then launch customer Qatar, followed by Singapore, LATAM, and USAirways.
In comparison to the larger Airbus A380 and its rival, the Boeing 787, the A350 has had a relatively smooth development phase. The European company didn’t subcontract and outsource the production process quite to the extent that Boeing did with the 787.
The final assembly of MSN-1, the A350 prototype began on April 5, 2012. On February 7, 2013, the European Aviation Safety Agency certified the A350’s Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines. Less than three weeks later, the first A350 rolled out of the final assembly line on February 26, 2013.
By March 26, 2013 Airbus announced the auxiliary power unit (APU) and Trent engines had been installed on MSN-1. April bought two major order announcements: a new A350 customer from British Airways’ parent International Air Group and additional aircraft from Singapore Airlines. After a flurry of production news in the months before, Airbus went into “radio silence” about the MSN-1’s final assembly.
As the 2013 Paris Air Show approached, things began to heat up, when MSN1, rolled out from the paint shop on May 13. But Airbus eschewed a splashy rollout and didn’t notify the press about the milestone event. French network TV 3 captured fuzzy video of the aircraft, then Airbus released pictures later that day of the aircraft painted in a relatively subdued house livery surrounded by employees.
By foregoing the traditional rollout event, the media frenzy went into overdrive that Airbus would attempt to fly the aircraft for the first time just before the Paris Air Show, to permit a fly-over at the world’s premiere aviation event.
Pictures of the A350 XWB logo emblazoned on the under-belly of the aircraft only added fuel to the fire of speculation. This would mean the aircraft would embark on its first flight and the test program just one month after roll out. By comparison, the 777 took two months to go from roll out to first flight; the A380 took three and a half months and the Boeing 787 took nearly two and a half years.
Despite constant comments by Airbus executives that a “Paris Air Show fly over would be nice but not necessary,” that “the plane will fly when it is ready to fly”, and vague statements that “the first flight will come sometime in the summer,” it was clear Airbus was aiming to steal some of the thunder from Boeing’s once-again airborne Dreamliner.
On June 2, Airbus reported that the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-84 engines were run for the first time on MSN1 following the start-up of the APU as part of the preparations for the aircraft’s maiden flight. Two days later, the aircraft was photographed moving under its own power, with high speed ground tests captured a day later. On June 11, Airbus reported that the initial ground taxi tests were complete, and that the A350 would take to the skies for the first time on June 14 at 10:00 a.m. Toulouse time.
At 9:15 a.m. on June 14, the media were transported via buses to a large field parallel to runway 14R/32L where the A350 would make its maiden take-off. After the first flight, A350 Test Pilot Frank Chapman noted that “though this is an incredible moment, it is only the first hour of a year-long, 2,500 hour, five flight test campaign…The cockpit and many other aircraft systems are much further ahead than the A380 was on its first flight.”
Didier Evrard, the EVP and Head of the A350 Program offered a briefing after the four hour and five minute flight. “This (first flight) is one event, a very significant event, but the program is a fast moving body and this is just the first step,” he said. “Our next challenges are maturity at EIS and production ramp-up. The A380 program has been rich in lessons for this program and has led to us to deeply rework our practices.” Exactly one week after MSN-1’s first flight, the aircraft made a historic pass over the Paris Air Show as part of its third test flight.
Progress Since the A350 First Flight
In October 2013, Airbus invited from around the world to provide an update on the background of the A350, new market developments, and how they believe their new aircraft stacks up to the competition.
Airbus’ Evrard said that so far between MSN001 and MSN003, the second test aircraft, the A350 has performed more than 80 test flights with 403 flight hours logged. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a really long lasting race. You need to make sure that the whole chain is strong enough to deliver this new phase,” he said.
Hugues Van Der Stichel, Experimental test pilot, VP Flight Test Regulation offered a list of key achievements logged by the A350 so far:
- Aero clean and landing configurations are completed;
- Settings for the air brakes are completed;
- The flight envelope has been opened;
- The A350 is now cleared in normal law up to FL430;
- System tests including failure cases and a RAT (ram air turbine) in-flight extension have been completed;
- Auto-flight is functional, and the first autoland was performed on F4; and
- Landing gear free falls have been performed.
MSN001 and 003 were already in the air, and the plan is to get MSN002 and 004 in the air by February 2014. Qatar Airways will be receiving MSN006, whose first flight was scheduled for December 2013.
MSN002 has progressed to be the first cabin-fitted aircraft, with window panels, cabin crew rest compartment, an aft galley, and “hat racks.” Cabin “0,” which is used for virtual flight testing is located in Hamburg, Germany, is also giving airbus a feel for how a real A350 will perform while in service. First “flight” was on July 25th, 2013, simulating from Tenerife to Finkenwerder with two pilots, eight flight attendants, and 129 passengers for a five-hour flight.
In terms of the in-flight product, four customization definition freezes have been declared since 2011, meaning four airlines have chosen the layout of their aircraft; what is inside the cabin. The A350 programme started with a handful of options, such as the Panasonic eX3 IFE system and Recaro CL3620 seats, but has evolved from 2011 to present. Systems such as the Panasonic eXlite and Thales TopSeries Avant are now available for section, as are a variety of bars, sets, and other options such as floor path marking.
Airbus is also investing for increased flexibility to manufacture the 350, adding and reconfiguring assembly bays. Currently Airbus is at a production rate of one per month, upping the rate to three per month by the end of 2014, just after a planned entry-into-service. It also outlined plans to increase production facilities as it aims for 10 aircraft a month within four years of entering service in the 2017-18 timeframe.
Qatar Airways Comes to Toulouse
On February 14, 2014, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker visited Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, to get an update on the A350 XWB testing program. At the time, the manufacturer took a moment to unveil a special Airbus and Qatar Airways hybrid livery for test aircraft MSN4. The aircraft was branded with “launch customer” titles and sported a modified Oryx Qatar Logo.
MSN4 joined the A350 flight test fleet for external noise and lightning tests, avionics development and certification and training for first customer pilots and maintenance teams. It was rolled out soon after MSN3 had completed cold weather testing in Iqaluit, Canada. Since A350 flight testing began in June 2013, more than 900 flight test hours have been performed across 200 test flights.
During the 2014 Farnborough Air Show, Airbus announced that it would offer an Airbus A330neo. With this announcement, the future appeared bleak for the Airbus A350-800 which would be the smallest member of the A350 XWB family. At the time, there were only 34 orders for the -800, down from 120. Many carriers switched their commitment to the -900. As far as the 34 orders were concerned, Airbus’ CEO, Fabrice Bregier, all but confirmed the demise of the A350-800, but he did note that Airbus would keep the A350-800 on offer so long as orders remained.
Qatar Airways is the launch customer of the A350 XWB, with entry into service (EIS) at the time was scheduled for later in 2014. The airline has 80 A350 family aircraft on order, including 43 smaller A350-900s and 37 larger A350-1000s. These aircraft, along with outstanding orders for 10 Airbus A380s, 26 Boeing 777-300ERs, 36 Airbus A320neos, 14 Airbus A321neos, and 21 Boeing 787-8s, will be used to fuel Qatar Airways’ massive growth ambitions.
The Qatari national carrier has a massive new home at Hamad International Airport in Doha in May, and has launched new routes around the globe, including service to Miami, Dallas/Fort Worth and Philadelphia.
“I am pleased with what I have seen during my visit. It gives me every confidence that the programme is well on track for our first delivery in 2014,” said Al Baker. “At Qatar Airways, we are eager to open a new chapter of efficient and comfortable air travel and the A350 XWB will do this for us. The aircraft will give us that extra edge in economics and comfort to further boost our route expansion.”
The pace on the FAL quickened as Airbus began to reach for its goal of 10 aircraft (currently at 1 per month) produced per month with Vietnam Airways’ first A350 entering production on October 1, 2014 followed by Finnair’s first on December 9th.
The A350-900 XWB received EASA certification on September 30, 2014 followed by ETOPS 370 minute certification on October 15, 2014. Just a day later on October 16, Qatar’s first A350 MSN-006 made its first flight. FAA certification came on November 13, 2014.
On December 4, the launch customer for the A350 announced it would take delivery of the first Airbus A350 XWB at the manufacturer’s plant in Toulouse, France, on December 13, with a media event scheduled for December 15 in Doha. But suddenly on December 10, Airbus released a statement saying there would be a delay, with no rescheduling date or reason given.
The carrier had planned to start using the A350 on its Doha-Frankfurt route starting in January 2015. “The delivery of our first A350 XWB aircraft, as global launch customer, is a highly anticipated event in the relatively young history of Qatar Airways and the second significant fleet milestone for our airline, having recently taken delivery of our A380 aircraft,” said Al Baker in a statement at the time.
But the first A350 will still be delivered to Qatar Airways before the end of 2014. A few days after Airbus announced that the delivery was postponed, the manufacturer announced that delivery would now take place on December 22.
To date, Airbus has received a total of 778 orders minus the 6 from Hawaiian for Airbus A350 XWB family aircraft. Currently, there are 26 orders for the A350-800 variant. There are 577 orders for the A350-900 and 169 orders for the A350-1000.