Airbus Takes Its Time To Get A350 Right the First Time
Since the Boeing 787 entered service last month, the spotlight has turned toward Airbus, which is working hard on the competing A350XWB.
Recent weeks have seen major subassemblies for the first aircraft being delivered to Airbus. Final assembly of the initial example–the static-test airframe–should begin by year-end and be completed in about 12 months, although Airbus officials have said it is more important to take the time needed to get the twin-aisle twinjet right and to avoid any A380-style delay later.
Acknowledging the challenging schedule, chief executive Tom Enders said Airbus will not be rushed into unmanageable production. “There’s no magical date by the end of the year. It’s nice to keep to a schedule, [but if] a few more months [are needed, it would be] better to delay,” he said. Nevertheless, to avoid disruption, Airbus has rescued the A350’s German bleed-air tube supplier PFW Aerospace from financial crisis.
The A350 family comprises -800, -900, and -1000 models accommodating 270, 314, and 350 passengers, respectively, on flights of up to 8,500 nm. By the start of October, 35 customers had ordered 567 A350s, with Airbus forecasting a 20-year demand for 5,800 new mid-size twin-aisle jetliners. To match perceived requirements, it has delayed A350-800 service entry from 2014 to 2016 to focus on the larger -900–scheduled for first delivery around the end of 2013–while also developing the single-aisle A320neo (see below).
This year has not been entirely encouraging for the A350 program. Between January and September more aircraft were cancelled than were ordered, although ever-positive chief operating officer for customers John Leahy has pointed out that there are few available slots before 2017-18. The slowdown in new orders may reflect two market realities: diluted interest in the smallest -800 model and uncertainty about the -1000 top-of-the-range variant (see box) that has undergone a significant design review this year as Airbus tries to sharpen its competitiveness against the Boeing 777-300ER.
Local operator Qatar Airways is one of the largest customers, with orders for 80 A350s. In October, Air France-KLM was preparing to sign for up to 60 A350s, of which 25 A350-900s could be ordered here this week. This will more than offset launch customer Bangkok Airways’s cancellation (without loss of deposit) of four A350-800s in September. One of the first airlines to fly the A350 will be Finnair, which has ordered 18 and is already planning a probable mid-life refit in about 2020.
To simplify manufacturing, Airbus has chosen to assemble much of the A350 fuselage using carbon-fiber composite skin panels rather than 787-style filament-wound barrels, although the rear fuselage does use barrel assemblies. Composites elements contributing 53 percent of the A350 primary structure include wings and fuselage.
A350 final assembly involves three fuselage sections pre-equipped with cabin systems, such as air conditioning; electrical harnesses; and hydraulics. The 20-meter (65.6-foot) Section 15 center fuselage–the longest of the three–uses composites upper-shell panels from U.S. supplier Spirit AeroSystems, which also provides the three-piece forward wing spars.
In late October, Spirit was preparing to air-freight initial upper-shell panels to Toulouse, to be followed before year-end by lower shells for final assembly during the first quarter of 2012. Later in production, shipping operator Rickmers-Linie will carry panels by sea under a multiple-year contract announced last month.
The 40-percent-composites A350 nose subassembly–comprising cockpit window frame, forward fuselage, passenger doorway and nosewheel bay–will be mated to the 13-meter (42.65-foot) forward fuselage, which is produced in Germany by Premium Aerotec from four composites panels, and the floor grid before receiving systems at Airbus in Hamburg ahead of delivery to Toulouse. The initial center-wingbox and first keel beam, subsequently integrated with the aft lower fuselage, were shipped in August.
A new Airbus wing primary-assembly plant, opened last month at Broughton in north Wales, has received components for A350 MSN1, the first flying example. The upper and lower wing panels (dubbed “covers” by Airbus) came from Germany and Spain, respectively, and completed wings will go to Bremen for early-2012 installation of flaps, slats and other systems before shipment to Toulouse. The wing lower cover measures about 32 meters by six meters (about 105 feet by 20 feet), claimed to be “the biggest carbon-fiber part ever produced in civil aviation.”
In Getafe, Spain, last month, Airbus began to join two lateral boxes that comprise the 17-meter (55.8-foot) span of the first A350 horizontal tailplane primary structure. Assembly over the coming weeks will be followed by installation of electrical and hydraulic systems before shipping to Toulouse.
The main landing gear and nosewheel assemblies arrived for testing at the Airbus UK Filton plant in the first half of 2011. Airbus has also expanded its Chinese production plant at Harbin ahead of A350 rudder and elevator production work. Last month the European Commission approved a repayable advance of €32.8 million ($45.6 million) by Belgium to SABCA for development of A350 flap-support structures.
The initial Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine–the manufacturer’s largest turbofan with an 118-inch-diameter fan–has been installed on the first A380 ready for flight test. Before being returned to Derby for strip down and analysis to confirm durability and component performance predictions, the fifth such powerplant exceeded performance targets during endurance tests recently completed at Spain’s Instituto Nacional de Tecnica Aeroespacial in Madrid.
“The [demonstrated] turbine-entry temperatures deliver substantial margin at the full 84,000-pound rating for the A350-900,” according to Trent XWB chief engineer Chris Young. The second Trent XWB has completed bird-strike tests, continuing to run without incident after ingesting four 2.5-pound birds at maximum takeoff power.
Meanwhile, Airbus single-aisle salesmen may be very busy answering requests for proposals from carriers that, since the manufacturer unveiled its “new engine option [neo]” initiative, can now choose from almost 20 variations on the A320-series theme. No longer just a question of CFM International CFM56-5B or International Aero Engines V2500 power and number of seats, the decision must accommodate preferences for “sharklet” wingtips and/or alternative Pratt & Whitney PW1100G geared-turbofan or CFM Leap-1A propulsion.
Aggravating the decision-making challenge is the availability of the wingtips and new engines on the A319 and A321 variants, which are each expected to comprise 25 percent of initial neo deliveries. The neo models have 95-percent commonality with “standard” aircraft and offer up to 500-nm more range, or 4,410-pounds more payload at a given range. They also are intended to reduce fuel-burn and emissions; improve takeoff, climb and cruise performance; and enhance aircraft value.
Airlines mulling the new, wider choice include Gulf operator Qatar Airways, which is expected to confirm here this week its selection of the A320neo. Here at the Dubai show this week, Kuwait’s Aviation Lease & Finance Co. (Alafco) could order 30 A320neos, converting the memorandum of understanding announced at the Paris Air Show. In Asia, Qantas Airways expects to use the 78 neos included in its recent order for 110 A320s to open new routes and expand international services.
July’s massive American Airlines requirement included the purchase of 130 A320neos for delivery from 2017, while US Airways is considering larger A321neos to replace Boeing 757s. Airbus figures suggest a 188-seat A321neo should offer a 3,720-nm range.
By early October, the company had booked almost 1,250 neo orders and commitments, since which time Brazil’s TAM has finalized a purchase agreement for 22 A320neos plus 10 regular A320s. Demand has seen neo service entry brought forward by six months to October 2015, with neo production expected to ramp-up over 30 months from mid-2015.
Airbus is converting the first A320 as a test bed on which sharklet flight-testing is scheduled to begin by year-end, ahead of the first new wing being delivered to the production line in the first quarter of 2012. A320 sharklets are expected to enter service in about 12 months’ time, before appearing sequentially on A319, A321 and A318 variants in 2013.