Airbus’ next-generation A350 plane was due to take off on its first test flight yesterday, with its backers predicting hundreds of orders at next week’s Paris Air Show as the European company ups the fight against Boeing Co.
The test flight is a milestone for an airliner that the firm hopes will challenge its US rival’s lead in the lucrative long-haul market and take on Boeing’s troubled 787 Dreamliner.
Tom Enders, the head of Airbus’s parent company EADS, was bullish on the question of orders.
“I believe that the air show next week should be good for a few hundred orders for Airbus,” he told reporters on Thursday, ahead of Monday’s opening of the high-profile Paris event.
The A350 — more than half of which is made of light composite materials that reduce fuel costs — was due to lift off from the southwestern French city of Toulouse at 8am GMT, weather permitting.
A British and a French test pilot were to fly the long-haul plane assisted by a flight engineer and three other engineers at the back.
If yesterday’s flight was successful, the plane then enters a test-flying period that Airbus hopes will last less than 18 months, with the first delivery expected at the end of next year. Confirmed customers so far include Qatar Airways, British Airways and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (國泰航空).
The A350 will complete Airbus’ long-haul stable, which includes the A380 superjumbo. It will gradually replace the older A330, a popular plane that analysts say has generated almost half of the firm’s revenues in recent years.
Airbus has positioned the A350 between Boeing’s popular 777 and its new 787 Dreamliner, which came into service after long delays in September 2011 and also makes extensive use of composites. The European company hopes it will eat away at both planes’ markets.
The test flight may cast a shadow over Boeing at the Paris Air Show, where the US firm is hoping to prove its Dreamliner is back on track after recent technical problems forced the worldwide grounding of the fleet.
Christophe Menard, aerospace and defense analyst at Kepler Capital Markets in Paris, said that despite its own delays on the A350, Airbus was getting the plane out faster than Boeing managed with the Dreamliner.
“If the plane flies well Friday, then it clearly means that they are more in command of their development process than Boeing,” he said.
Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in terms of orders — 890 versus 613.
Enders described the test flight as “a galvanizing moment for Airbus and the entire group.” The flight was to be broadcast to all divisions of the European aerospace group, he said.
“It is a very special moment in the life of a company,” he said, though he added: “There are still plenty of challenges ahead.”
Even if yesterday’s flight went to plan, the A350 then enters the test flying phase where much could still go wrong.
“The risk is they find other things that they hadn’t expected,” said Nick Cunningham, an aviation analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.
“They start building aircraft before they finish certifying and testing, so if you run into any issues, it gets very expensive as you have to fix the ones you already built,” he said.
“That’s the problem that Boeing has been having with the 787 and it’s an issue that Airbus themselves had with the A380, so it’s a nail-biting time over the next year,” he added.