Airbus on Friday declared the maiden flight of its new passenger jet a success, as the company vowed to usurp Boeing’s leadership in the long-haul aircraft market.
An Airbus A350 test aircraft took off from the company’s Toulouse base and landed back there about four hours later.
The flight focused on the aircraft’s basic handling and speed capability, and the crew’s satisfaction was demonstrated as one of them unfurled an Airbus flag from the cockpit immediately after it touched down.
Airbus believes the A350 will enable it to cut down Boeing’s lead in the lucrative wide-body twin-engined market by providing a strong alternative to the US manufacturer’s new 787 Dreamliner and its popular 777 jet.
Fabrice Brégier, Airbus’s chief executive, said: “We are talking about a market of 6,000 long-range aircraft for the next 20 years, and we want to have more than 50 per cent of this market.”
To highlight Airbus’s determination to catch up with Boeing, the European manufacturer is hoping the A350 can do a fly past at the Paris air show next week.
Peter Chandler, Airbus’s chief test pilot, who flew the A350 prototype aircraft as part of a six-man crew, told the Financial Times afterwards: “It just seemed really happy in the air.”
The former RAF pilot added: “All the things we were testing had no major issues at all.”
The A350 programme represents the single biggest development risk at Airbus, with the company keen to avoid the large cost-overruns and delays that affected its last new passenger jet, the A380 superjumbo, which had its first test flight in 2005.
Didier Evrard, head of the A350 programme at Airbus, told a crowd of jubilant employees that he hoped his team would help improve the industry’s image by successfully launching the new aircraft.
Airbus and Boeing have both experienced problems with previous aircraft programmes, which analysts say have a development cost of $10bn or more.
The Dreamliner entered commercial service in 2011, more than three years late, because of technology problems, and Boeing was rocked in January when regulators ordered a temporary grounding of the aircraft after lithium-ion batteries on two 787s burnt.
The A350 is also running behind schedule, with its entry into service now scheduled for the second half of 2014, which represents a delay of up to 18 months.
Like the Dreamliner, the A350 involves big changes in technology and materials. Both jets are mainly made from lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic, rather than traditional aluminium alloy, to reduce fuel burn.
Tom Enders, chief executive of EADS, Airbus’s parent, said the hard parts of the A350 programme were the looming challenges of obtaining certification of the aircraft from the aviation authorities and then the planned ramp-up in production.
However, Mr Enders expressed confidence the A350 would be handed over to Qatar Airways, the launch customer, in the second half of 2014.