Airbus closing on 200 orders as A350 undergoes change

 - December 11, 2006, 11:19 AM

By the end of 2005, and perhaps even by the end of the show, Airbus expects to have booked commitments toward firm orders for 200 examples of the A350. This follow-on from the successful A330 twin-aisle twinjet, was launched less than seven weeks ago, and just 10 months after shareholders EADS and BAE Systems gave formal authority for the sales force to offer the aircraft.

Airbus timing has been driven by the need to offer an aircraft to catch a 2010 to 2013 “replacement wave” for older Airbus A300s and A310s, Boeing 767s, and early A340s, McDonnell Douglas MD-11s and Boeing 777s. A second round is expected to follow in the 2017 to 2020 time frame, according Airbus market forecasters.

Despite Airbus having gathered “firm order commitments” from nine customers covering 140 units since that commercial launch, the aircraft has undergone significant change as Airbus accommodated industry feedback and refined the design to improve further its ability to meet market requirements. According to the European airframer, the twin-aisle model provides “the ability to respond to all long-range market needs, with the A380 for hub to hub, A340 for ultra long-range, and A330 and A350 for medium to very long ranges.”

The A350 has a lot in common with current A330 models, although new engines, wing and landing gear, and greater use of advanced materials–such as aluminum lithium for the fuselage structure and floor panels–support Airbus’ contention that it is effectively a new aircraft. The company also cited “over 90 percent” new manufacturer’s part numbers, and a redesigned cabin offering increased shoulder clearance, “better” stowage capacity and a new air-conditioning system.

Nevertheless, both aircraft will be on the same type certificate and pilots need only one type rating to fly either. both models enjoy cross-crew commonality with other current Airbus widebodies. Externally both aircraft look alike and share broadly similar dimensions.

One thing that will definitely be different with regard to the A350 is that Airbus has taken on additional risk-sharing partners and associates in China, Russia and other countries. Most remaining supplier selections are expected to be confirmed by year-end, and some may be announced here in Dubai this week.

Airbus already is planning A350 subvariants, with an initial two models predicted to be available for service entry in 2010. At face value, this is two years behind the rival Boeing 787, but Airbus argues that early 787 production is sold out and that no new prospective customer will be able to receive either aircraft before perhaps 2011.

The A350 series begins with the -800 which is being designed to accommodate 253 passengers in a standard three-class configuration for flights up to 8,800 nm. The -800 is expected to fly in the third or fourth quarter of 2009 and to receive formal airworthiness approval in time for scheduled operations to begin in July 2010. With a fuselage two frames longer than the A350-800’s 193 feet, the larger 900 subvariant is planned to offer capacity for up to 300 travelers in a three-class layout over routes up to 7,500 nm. Design definition is likely to be frozen around the turn of the year, with detailed design beginning very early in 2006.

There also is talk of a heavier, extended-range A350-1000 to compete against the Boeing 777-200ER. Internal studies are understood to be based upon gross-weight increases that make use of the new landing gear (which avoids any need to adopt an A340-style centerline undercarriage unit). An increase in maximum takeoff weight of about 33,000 pounds is thought to be favored, sufficient to permit an extra 200 nm range that would close the gap between the A350 and the 777-200ER. Officially, Airbus says only that the initial A350 structure is being developed to accommodate weight growth.

The market for this 250- to 300-seat aircraft, including freighters, over the next 20 years is estimated at some 3,300 units–of which Airbus expects to command half. Before the industry assembled here in Dubai, Airbus announced 140 A350 firm orders from Air Europa (10), Kuwaiti leasing group Alafco (12), CIT (5), GECAS (10), Kingfisher Airlines (5), Qatar Airways (60), TAM (8), US Airways (20) and an unannounced customer (10). Alafco is reported to have taken options on six more.

The 540,000-pound-gross weight aircraft carries nominal “sticker” prices of $158.6 million to $165.3 million for the A350-800, and $176 million to $182.6 million for the longer variant.

Rolls Offers Trent Engine Alternative

Initially, the aircraft will enter service powered by the new General Electric GEnx 1A, but coinciding with October’s A350 industrial launch Rolls-Royce announced it had “reached agreement” with Airbus to supply an alternative new powerplant–the Trent 1700, a sixth member of the RB211-524L-derived family which will be available in mid-2011.

The Trent 1700 is expected to run for the first time around mid-2009, followed by joint certification for aircraft/engine combination in 2011.

Formal industrial launch of the A350 has followed assurance that European governments will support the $5.25 billion development program. Two months ago incoming Airbus chief executive Gustav Humbert said France, Germany, Spain and the UK would provide loans to offset the two-thirds proportion–$3.5 billion–being supplied by EADS and BAE Systems. “I am very confident, having talked to the governments, that we will get refundable launch investment,” said Humbert.

Humbert has defended the application for government support despite U.S. opposition, saying that Airbus deserves a level playing field against Boeing, which receives lucrative U.S. government contracts and tax breaks. Airbus is permitted to secure up to 33 percent of program financing in the form of refundable loans (which may be enhanced by royalties on sales beyond a given threshold) under a 1992 large-aircraft manufacturing resolution agreed to by both sides but still the subject of a transatlantic World Trade Organization dispute.