Airbus’s inauguration ceremony for the A350 final assembly line in Toulouse last Tuesday marked a key milestone in the company’s 40-year history of widebody production and the latest step in its pursuit of a market segment dominated by Boeing for the past decade and a half. More than 1,000 representatives from customers, suppliers, partners, along with elected officials and other invitees bore witness to the 800,000-sq-ft factory next to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport in southwestern France, where Airbus houses the program’s first static test airframe.
Sized as an A350-900, the ground test unit sits at the final assembly line’s Station 40, where the company has assembled the fuselage and installed the wings and vertical tail plane. At the adjacent Station 50, Airbus has joined the fuselage of the first flight-test airplane–also an A350-900–and plans to mate its wings and tail “in the coming weeks.” Last Monday Airbus rolled out the vertical tailplane for the first flyable A350 (MSN 1) from its Toulouse paint hall. The first A350 component to sport the Airbus livery, it stands some 33 feet tall and will join with the fuselage via what the company calls an innovative, lighter and more aerodynamic connection.
Plans call for the start of assembly of a third A350 XWB before year-end, first delivery in 2014 and a production rate “ramp up” to 10 aircraft per month by late 2018.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, signs continued to point to a launch of a new version of the 777 by that time. Speaking last Wednesday during his company’s third-quarter earnings call, Boeing CEO Jim McNerney referred to an entry into service “at the end of the decade or the beginning of the next decade” for the airplane now known as the 777X–widely seen as a direct competitor to Airbus’s A350-1000, scheduled for EIS in 2017.
Calling it a lower risk endeavor than, most notably, the 787-8, McNerney talked of “harvesting risk” the company has absorbed over the past decade.
“One of the options with [the 777X], and we are discussing this with some of our customers, is to put a composite wing and a new engine on the current airframe,” said McNerney. “Building a composite wing of this size would not have been thinkable a decade ago. We now know how to do that and I can’t think of anyone else who does. So that would be an example of harvesting 787 applied technology in a second-generation form, combining it with a current system…to come up with something pretty special.”