Airbus has pushed back the planned first flight of the Airbus A350XWB from late 2012 to the first quarter of 2013. Last Thursday, the European airframer admitted that it has had to revise its production schedule, blaming the slippage on delayed subassemblies being produced by partners in Europe and the U.S., including GKN Aerospace and Spirit Aerosystems.
Entry-into-service (EIS) date for the initial A350-900 variant with launch customer Qatar Airways is now put at sometime in the first half of 2014, rather than during the last two quarters of 2013. Airbus parent company EADS revealed that it has taken a €200 million ($270 million) charge against the late-running program (see story, page 46) in its third-quarter results.
Having had its fingers badly burned on the A380 when trying to accommodate initial-assembly problems within a tight schedule, Airbus clearly doesn’t want to get it wrong this time–despite the pressure of the Boeing 787 entering service in recent weeks. After all, its U.S. competitor also has suffered long delays in developing that aircraft.
The new schedule also means that Airbus and Rolls-Royce are under less time-pressure to prove the performance of the A350’s Trent XWB engine. The first example has recently been fitted to A380 No.1, the flying test bed in a program that calls for the powerplant to fly a year before the A350’s maiden liftoff. Nevertheless, the two companies remain very coy when quizzed on a likely schedule.
Near the top of the A350 agenda is the need to ensure maturity of the main components and subassemblies now being brought together in Toulouse, where Airbus hopes to begin assembling the first airframe–the static-test article, dubbed “ES”–early in 2012 (compared with the previous target at the end of this year).
“The program is advancing with manufacturing and pre-assembly of the A350-900 progressing across all pre-final-assembly [pre-FAL] sites,” said Airbus. This initial model will be followed by the smaller -800 variant and the larger -1000 model.
“Lessons learned from previous programs will be applied for the next [final assembly] phase,” said Airbus executive vice president and A350 program head Didier Evrard, who cited four “maturity enablers” on which the manufacturer is concentrating as the first airframe is prepared for final assembly: supply-chain readiness; factory readiness; management of out-of-sequence work; and quality of assembly and installation drawings, aligned to meet production requirements.
The manufacturer is especially keen to monitor progress among suppliers. “We need to control out-of-sequence work or we will lose efficiency,” said Evrard. “We cannot allow too much work to “travel.” A new route to entry into service released on Thursday shows final assembly now expected to continue well into early 2013.
Before the end of this year, Airbus expects to start system installation in the first completed airframe as functional testing is completed in Toulouse and among its suppliers. Systems integration tests that began last year should be finished as final assembly is completed.
Saying that the first A350 airframe is now reaching the end of the pre-FAL stage, Evrard acknowledged some delay due to the late availability of certain key composites and detailed parts. “But we can be satisfied with what we see. It is our top priority to reach the highest levels of part-readiness before aircraft sections enter final assembly,” he said.
Last week Airbus declined to release copies of a chart shown at the Toulouse briefing that illustrates pre-FAL progress and on which items received have been checked in green. Outstanding subassemblies awaited from program partners (checked only in yellow) involve composites fuselage skin panels supplied by Spirit AeroSystems of the U.S. and parts coming from UK-based GKN Aerospace, which is responsible for wing spars and fixed wing trailing-edge assemblies. These items are effectively setting the pace for final assembly.
Spirit AeroSystems shipped the first A350 center-fuselage panels for the upper-shell assembly last month, when the supplier acknowledged that it was “working with Airbus to meet all their requirements and delivery schedules for the pre-final-assembly phase.”
Initial airframe ES will be followed by the first flying A350 (MSN001), second flight-test example (MSN003) and then the fatigue-test specimen (actually three large assemblies: EF1, EF2 and EF3) ahead of MSN004, which will be used as a cabin interior test vehicle.
A so-called “airline office” was set up earlier this year to establish operational expertise with the help of Emirates, Finnair, Qatar Airways and TAP Air Portugal along with North American operators United Airlines and US Airways, said Evrard. It will validate items such as the aircraft maintenance manual, ground-support equipment tools and minimum mandatory equipment lists.