A350XWB more than catch-up effort

 - June 8, 2007, 11:57 AM

Airbus has made virtue of a necessity with its new A350XWB (extra widebody) airliner. The company admits it was outmaneuvered by Boeing with the rapid success of the rival 787 program and Airbus very much needs to prove to the market that it is offering something more than just a catch-up product. At the same time, after the production debacle with the A380 airliner, it needs to prove to its shareholders and customers that it is fit to manage another complex program.

Three weeks before the Paris Air Show, the new Airbus program received a welcome boost in the form of a major new order from Qatar Airways. At a high-profile ceremony in the French capital with the country’s new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, the fast-growing Middle Eastern carrier signed a contract for 80 A350XWBs.

The deal supersedes an earlier contract for 60 of the original A350 model and makes Qatar Airways the largest customer to date for the XWB model. The contract calls for 20 A350-800s, 40 A350-900s and 20 of the largest version, the A350-1000–with deliveries to begin in 2013.

More recently, Air Lingus ordered six A350XWBs and six A330-300s.

According to the Airbus sales and marketing team, the A350XWB will benefit from following in the wake of Boeing’s risk with the 787 by taking advantage of a longer gestation period to offer superior performance and overall technology. And for the European airframer’s new top management, the program could either make or break the Power8 restructuring program on which its very viability as a company rests.

“There is no doubt that Boeing started this generation of aircraft and they caught us napping,” admitted John Leahy, Airbus chief operating officer for customers, at a pre-Paris Air Show press briefing. “We came to the party late and had to come up with a better product and it has taken us three redesigns to do this.”

Launched only late last year, the A350XWB will not be ready to enter service until 2015. Leahy’s challenge is to convince customers that the aircraft is worth waiting for, and he believes that forward-thinking operators such as Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways are coming around to this point of view.

So what will await those operators with the patience to hold out for the new Airbus?
The three variants envisioned to date will target airlines needing a medium-sized twin-aisle aircraft with around 8,300-nm range. The family–with some 30 seats payload differential between each member and similar range–will confront Boeing’s present and future offerings in that the largest A350XWB-1000 will rival the long-legged Boeing 777-300ER.

The new Airbus’ XWB tag refers to its markedly wider cabin. At between 211 and 218 inches across, the cabin will be four or five inches wider than that of the 787. This will allow for improved levels of passenger comfort with a standard nine-abreast economy-class configuration. Some prospective operators have signaled a desire to go for higher density 10-across seating and Airbus is considering this possibility. The
revised A350 interior will also feature Airbus’ latest CabinVision design features and fully personalized in-flight enter-tainment systems–drawing on advances achieved for the A380.

In addition to a new wing with a bigger chord and more sweep, the twinjet’s performance will trade on advances in the application of new airframe materials. It will be the first Airbus airframe to be more than 50 percent composite and it will also feature 14 percent titanium and a 20-percent mix of aluminium and aluminium lithium.

Power for the Mach 0.85-cruise twin-aisle jet is currently based solely on a new version of the Trent family that Rolls-Royce is working on for Airbus. This week here at Le Bourget, General Electric is expected to formally propose alternative engines.

Among the targets set for the 9:1-bypass-ratio A350XWB powerplants are that they should deliver at least 2 percent better fuel consumption than the already parsimonious A380 engines, and 5 percent lower maintenance costs. It is projected to require 6 percent less block fuel per seat and 25 percent better operating cost than 777-200ER, while also being 7 percent more economical than the new 787.

On the environmental front, the engines are expected to deliver Stage III minus 20 dB and an 85 dB noise contour within airport boundaries by way of noise performance. Airbus also wants them to fall 25 percent below the International Civil Aviation Organization’s CAEP 6 limits for nitrous oxide (NOx) emissions.

The A350XWB models will share a common engine architecture. However, for the -1000 model, which is due to enter service in 2015, the 95,000-pound thrust engines will have a different size fan and new materials in the hot section to allow it to run faster. Rolls-Royce is now looking to introduce some of this technology into the -800 and -900 engines and therefore increase materials commonality.

Also eagerly anticipated later this summer is a slew of selections for the risk-sharing aerostructures partners, who are projected to handle about 60 percent of the program. “We will select these partners earlier and involve them in the program earlier,” explained A350XWB program executive vice president Didier Evrard, who has been brought in by Airbus parent EADS as part of the effort to avoid errors made in the epic A380 development.

In April, Airbus held a launch meeting for prospective partners and it has since refined the selection process. Partners for more complex items such as landing gear are likely to be announced first.

The A350XWB airframe will feature long panels that require only lap joints to connect them. This should reduce weight by optimizing panel lay-up and skin thickness. The new aircraft is expected to deliver a 15-percent reduction in terms of empty weight per seat compared with Boeing’s 777 family.

The A350XWB will be at concept phase until the end of 2008, with manufacturing set to start at beginning of 2009 on track to a first flight during the first quarter of 2012. The first -900 model is due to enter service in mid 2013.

“This is a big commitment for Airbus,” said Evrard. “We will be taking a fresh approach organizationally to avoid problems of the A380–setting sustainable competitive advantages and working in a more integrated way nationally and transnationally within Airbus and with our suppliers and partners.”

The program’s new boss, who comes from EADS missiles business MBDA and reports directly to Airbus president and CEO Louis Gallois, said the European airframer is now focused entirely on achieving entry into service, rather than just the first flight. Through its new development and ramp-up excellence (DARE) policy, the airframer will manage the program through a succession of “maturity gates” with a view to ensuring that the service entry time table is not subsequently compromised by problems uncovered at the eleventh hour.

The A350 team is moving into its own buildings, with up to 600 people engaged during the concept phase alone. The XWB’s final assembly line will be in Toulouse, where it will take advantage of facilities previously used for the A330/340 models.
Referring specifically to the wiring problems that have bedeviled the A380, Evrard commented that Airbus has learned a lot from improvements made during the A400M military transport development. “This has made a big step forward, with new functionality in the design process that extends well into the manufacturing stage,” he explained. “We also need to improve the way we integrate our resource planning and we will invest in a new resource planning system so that it is wherever you are in the Airbus integration centers.

“We are happy with results from the low-speed wind-tunnel tests,” said Evrard. “There have been no major changes in airline input for the concept since we announced it at Farnborough [in July 2006].”

A350XWB chief engineer Gordon McConnell confirmed that Airbus will stick to the aircraft weight targets announced when the program was launched in December 2006. “There will be one common wing between models and this will be the most advanced, aerodynamically efficient wing that Airbus has ever made,” he explained. “It will have the lowest weight thanks to its carbon fiber structure and a new high lift device for the fly-by-wire control of the spoilers.”

Airbus is using new software and additional computing power to run full fluid dynamics tests. The program will still use wind tunnel tests but this stage of the engineering work will be reduced by 40 percent, which could save as much as six months on the development time.