So far, so good. The Airbus A350, the European aircraft maker’s first new passenger jet in seven years, and its most sophisticated aircraft yet, is on course to enter commercial service at the end of this year with Qatar Airways.
Analysts regard the wide-body A350 as the single biggest risk at the passenger jet subsidiary of Airbus. This is because new aircraft programmes by the Toulouse-based company and Boeing, its chief rival, have a track record of running up large cost over-runs and delays that badly hurt the companies’ profitability.
The A350 is running up to 18 months behind schedule. That, however, is half the slippage faced by the 787 Dreamliner made by Boeing of the US.
So, Fabrice Brégier, chief executive of Airbus’s commercial business, may yet win the “bet” he placed in a Financial Times interview in 2012 that the A350 would not encounter delays similar to those endured by the wide-body Dreamliner.
Airbus remains haunted by the delays and production problems that accompanied the launch of its A380 superjumbo. It is determined to avoid a repetition with the A350.
The A380 entered service in 2007. Airbus had struggled with early production of the complex aircraft partly because of divisions inside the company that reflected rivalries between its French and German workers. Those divisions appear to have been resolved but the A380 programme remains lossmaking. The project is due to break even only next year.
The A350’s series of test flights began in June last year. Airbus has been able to stick to a challenging timetable partly because extensive reviews of the aircraft were done beforehand on the ground.
These ground tests are one key reason that Airbus is aiming for a 14-month period from first flight last year to granting by regulators of an airworthiness certificate. This compares with 20 months for the A380.
With the A350, “what has pleased me most [is that] we have initiated a lot of ground testing,” says Fernando Alonso, the Airbus executive in charge of flight testing. “We have made significant improvements relative to other [aircraft] programmes.”
Mr Alonso adds that the test flights identified some problems, including with the doors for the landing gear and with software that controls the brakes. “All these are normal – that is why we do flight tests,” he says. “We have not found anything ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to handle this’.”
What has pleased me most [is that] we have initiated a lot of ground testing
But even though the path to A350 certification and entry into service appears open, some analysts, such as Douglas Harned at Bernstein, say there are bigger potential pitfalls after that, notably with the plans that Airbus has to increase production of the aircraft to 10 per month by 2018.
This is daunting not just for Airbus, but also for its supply chain because the A350, like Boeing’s Dreamliner, represents a step-change in technology – it is mainly made from lightweight carbon fibre reinforced plastic rather than traditional aluminium, in order to reduce fuel burn.
In May, Harald Wilhelm, Airbus group’s finance director, said the company had not accepted certain items from Spirit AeroSystems, a US aerospace company that manufactures part of the A350’s fuselage. He suggested this was because the particular components in question were not of the required quality.
“We don’t want to have mess in our factory,” he said in response to an analyst’s question. “And that I think explains what we observe on the Spirit side.”
Spirit said it was “proud” to work on the A350, adding the programme was still in its development phase. “We are working through some issues that are common to all development programmes. We will continue to support [Airbus] as [production] rates increase on this programme.” Airbus said Spirit’s fuselage sections were now in an “increasingly better shape”.
One thing is clear. Even if Airbus manages to press the A350 into service on time, the challenges are far from over and the programme is not due to become profitable until towards the end of the decade.