Airbus A350 XWB Passenger Jet Takes Off, First Unit Delivered to Qatar Airlines

Europe’s top aircraft manufacturer, the Airbus Group NV (EPA:AIR) celebrated a major milestone on Monday, delivering the first unit of its new flagship commercial jet — the Airbus A350 XWB — to Qatar Airways (a state owned airline).  The launch event was held at Airbus’ headquarters in Toulouse, France on Monday morning and marked a festive end to a long and — at times — painful development cycle.

I. A Long Time Coming

Plans for the A350 were hatched in 2004.  Having seen its A340 largely outshown by the Boeing Comp.’s (BA) 777 in the 1990s and with the threat of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner looming ahead, Airbus needed a bold new design.  But the A330 and A340 successor that was initially unveiled fell flat with customers and aviation enthusiasts alike.

The rejection sent Airbus back to the drawing board, and two years later it offered up a bolder vision — the Airbus A350 XWB.

The XWB standards for “extra wide body”.  The wide body fits well with the aircraft’s primary purpose — packing in the passengers.  The new design has received a warmer welcome from aviation enthusiasts.  It features a distinctive wraparound cockpit windows and an eye-catching nose design.

The Airbus XWB features a distinctive wraparound cockpit design. [Image Source: Airbus]
The redesign featured a wide fuselage capable of seating eight people per row in lower-density arrangements, or ten in high density arrangements.  This guaranteed a maximum capacity of 440-550 passengers (depending on the variant).

These seating numbers fall roughly in line with the seating arrangement and capacity of the Boeing 777 (which seats 8-9 per row) or Boeing 787 Dreamliner (which seats 9-10 per row).  Airbus claims its plane provides a little over a centimeter per seat of extra space, compared to comparable Boeing models.

The craft suffered costly delays, but ultimately reached the finished line improved by the ordeal.
[Image Source: Airbus]
The bold design took some time to reach the finish line.  The original redesign set Airbus back roughly two years.  And during the subsequent development cycle, the design was delayed by more than a year more.  Today’s planned launch was originally intended for mid-2013.

The development cost Airbus in excess of EUR€12B ($15B USD).

II. A Refined Design

The A350 XWB and 787 Dreamliner both share the same engine designer — Rolls-Royce Holdings plc (LON:RR) was also closely tied to the new design.  Rolls Royce produced the engines for the new craft.  The new engine — dubbed the “Trent XWB” — is a full bleed design, meaning that it uses compressed air in the stage of the engine before fuel injection.

The new engine generates 330–420 kN (74,000–94,000 lbf) of thrust, with one engine placed on each wing of the craft.  The use of full bleed is thought to lower the fuel efficiency, versus a partial bleed engine like the one used by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  Despite their large size and substantial thrust, the new Rolls Royce engines reportedly sound remarkably quiet, thanks in part to the higher cockpit pressure.

To compensate for the reduced efficiency, the Airbus A350 uses even less steel than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  Roughly 10 percent of the 787’s weight is steel; the Airbus A380 XWB is expected to use only 6 percent steel by weight.  As with the 787 Dreamliner, roughly half the craft’s weight comes from a carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) skin that covers the main fuselage.  

The Airbus A350 XWB uses a carbon fiber body, but sticks with aluminum for the nose cone to protect against bird strikes. [Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The switch to CFRP was the biggest aspect of the 2006 redesign; the original 2004 design had planned to use a lightweight metal skin.  Airbus considered a one-piece CFRP shell but ultimately opted to adopt an aluminum-based nose design for the A350 XWB, a design which was closely derived from the A380.  The use of aluminum was considered a necessary evil, as a CFRP nose would have required titanium reinforcements to guard against dangerous bird strikes.

The aircraft’s wings use a new “sabre-like” curved wing tip.  

The “sharklet” curved wingtips reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. [Image Source: Airbus]
These winglets — which Airbus calls “Sharklets” are perhaps the most iconic feature of the new design, cutting drag.  They also are a crucial feature technically speaking, as well.  They’re responsible for boosting the cruising speed from Mach 0.85 in the A330/A340 to Mach 0.89.

The new Airbus A350 XWB cruises at Mach 0.89. [Image Source: Airbus]
The reduced weight and higher cruising speed allow the craft to burn an estimated 25 percent less fuel per trip than an A330/A340.

The aircraft’s avionics are made by France’s Thales SA (EPA:HO), who was awarded a EUR€2B ($2.9B USD) contract for the design.  The new avionics mirror the advances of the Airbus A380, using integrated modular avionics (IMA).

Automation is increased from 23 functions in the A380 to 40 functions in the A350 XWB, while line-replaceable module (swappable computer systems) count is reduced by 50% versus the A380.  These changes should cumulatively deliver greater fuel efficiency while also delivering serious savings on the maintenance front.

Other suppliers of electronics for the craft included America’s Honeywell International Inc. (HON) and the aviation unit of Japan’s Panasonic Corp. (TYO:6752).

On the backup power front, there was some good to come from the delays.  Airbus learned a valuable lesson from the lithium ion battery fires that grounded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner fleet.  After bearing witness to its rival’s struggles, Airbus dropped plans for its own lithium ion backup power pack, instead adopting a safer, more reliable nickel-cadmium battery pack, for its backup power needs.

III. Worth the Wait

Under the final plans Airbus is offering three variants of the new passenger jet:

[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

  • A350-800 XWB
    • Price: $260.9M USD
    • Orders: 32
    • Length: 60.54 m (198.6 ft)
    • Std. 3-Class Passenger Capacity: 270
    • Cargo: 9 pallets
  • A350-900 XWB
    • Price: $295.2M USD
    • Orders: 577
    • Length: 66.89 m (219.5 ft)
    • Std. 3-Class Passenger Capacity: 314
    • Cargo: 11 pallets
  • A350-1000 XWB
    • Price: $340.7M USD
    • Orders: 169
    • Length: 73.88 m (242.4 ft)
    • Std. 3-Class Passenger Capacity: 350
    • Cargo: 14 pallets

After seeing its first test flights last year, the A350 XWB received regulatory blessings from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in Sept. of this year and approval by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) last month.

An Airbus A350 XWB awaits its first test flight at a 2013 press event. [Image Source: Airbus]
The delays in the production of the A350 XWB triggered small drops in the number of cumulative orders, both in 2010 and this year.  Overall, though, orders have trended upwards to their currently levels of 778.  Airbus hopes to be producing 10 of the aircraft per month (120 total per year) by 2018, to clear out the backlog.

Airbus CEO Fabrice Brégier cheered the delivery, stating in a press release:
Handing over the first A350 XWB represents a significant step in Airbus and aviation history. The A350 XWB becomes the most modern aircraft in service, developed with our excellence established over 45 years in meeting our customers’ needs. The A350 XWB is the latest Airbus aircraft to join the skies, revolutionising our industry and redefining the way people fly.

It is with tremendous pride that we are delivering our first A350 XWB today to our launch customer, Qatar Airways. It’s a perfect match, to be handing over the first of an all-new, world class aircraft to a leading, world class airline.
At a press event he quipped about Qatar Airlines CEO Akbar Al Baker, “[He is a] tough customer… you are demanding, sometimes for us a bit too demanding.”

Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Brégier (left) and EVP Didier Evrard stand in front of the first delivered A350 XWB craft. [Image Source: Airbus]
The aircraft is mostly assembled at 10 European Union sites.  The wings are built primarily at a plant in Broughton, Wales, UK.  The fuselage is assembled at a facility in Illescas, Spain.  The composite rudder is typically assembled in a plant in China, while other parts of the craft and its electronics are assembled elsewhere in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

The largest customer of Airbus’s new model, thus far, Qatar Airlines is expected to field the first deliveries of the new model, starting next month.  The Arab airline has agreed to purchase 37 of the longer A350-1000s and 43 of the A350-900s.

In total 41 airlines worldwide have lined up to purchase the craft.  Deliveries to other airlines are expected to begin next year, which means you should spot these planes at major international airports, starting next year.