Friday, June 14, 2013

Airbus A350 Completes Maiden Flight: WSJ

Updated June 14, 2013, 8:42 a.m. ET


The Wall Street Journal 


TOULOUSE, France—The new Airbus A350 jetliner made its maiden flight Friday, roughly two weeks ahead of the company's publicly stated deadline, offering hope that the aviation industry is moving beyond years of costly delays and production problems.

The two-engine intercontinental plane is the first new model from Airbus since its giant A380 superjumbo, which initially flew in 2005 but faced serious manufacturing glitches that pushed it billions of dollars over budget and several years behind schedule.

Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., EAD. has tried to learn from those mistakes and from those of its U.S. rival Boeing Co., which has struggled to build its new 787 Dreamliner.

The A350, like the Dreamliner with which it competes, is built largely of carbon-fiber composites, rather than traditional aluminum. Both planes aim to significantly cut airlines' cost of operations by burning less fuel than current models and requiring less maintenance.

The A350's first flight began at 10 a.m. local time under sunny skies with puffy clouds and ended at 2 p.m. with a smooth, quiet landing.

"It's a galvanizing event for Airbus and for the entire group," said EADS Chief Executive Tom Enders on Thursday.

The flight kicks off more than a year of testing. If the proving proceeds smoothly, the plane should be approved by government regulators to carry passengers in the middle of next year. Airbus expects to deliver the first A350, to Qatar Airways, in the second half of next year.

Didier Evrard, chief engineer of the A350 program, said achieving that target looks realistic if no big surprises arise during flight testing, which will be conducted on five planes. Mr. Evrard, who has overseen the A350's development since soon after its launch in late 2005, said in an interview that after a string of problems early on, the program now is on course.

His next task will be to begin assembling A350s for customers and ramp up production quickly while controlling costs. Airbus aims to deliver A350s at a rate of three planes each month by the end of 2014.

"At the end of the day, what counts is the revenues and the margins," Mr. Evrard said.

The timing of the A350's first flight, three days before the opening of the Paris Air Show on Monday, is critical for Airbus, which wants to build excitement around the plane. Airbus officials had long said they wanted to fly the plane by midyear, but internally Chief Executive Fabrice Brégier had targeted the week of the air show, which is the aviation industry's biggest trade event of the year.

Mr. Evrard said that after the opening of the A350's new assembly hall in October, he started a countdown timer on his computer for June 17. Around that time, "it became obvious to everybody on the team that it would be possible" to fly the plane by the air show, Mr. Evrard said. "The fact we had a fixed target helped."

Mr. Brégier said in an interview that he was surprised that the first A350s assembled "came together perfectly." In the past, components of initial units of new planes have needed extensive reworking in assembly because measurements were imperfect. But thanks to advanced computer design and manufacturing, combined with the plane's composite structure, "the tolerances of parts is much better" than on past planes, Mr. Brégier said.

Mr. Evrard said that early investments in computer models and networks to link engineers have paid off. As the first prototypes came together, workers had many fewer questions about the A350's digital blueprints than they had faced with the two-deck A380 almost a decade earlier.

Computer modeling has also improved since the A380, allowing engineers to do more testing of parts and systems before production, Mr. Evrard said. As a result, he said, support materials such as flight manuals and troubleshooting guides are already largely completed, at an unusually early stage in the plane's development.

Mr. Evrard said Airbus has also already delivered to the European Aviation Safety Agency half of the documentation that is required for EASA to certify the plane for passenger flights. All the documentation should be delivered by year-end, Mr. Evrard said. Flights for the certification are set to begin early next year, he said.

With flight tests beginning, the next priority for Airbus is to ensure that production begins smoothly. Shifting from initial assembly of prototypes to steady manufacturing of jetliners in large numbers has been a problem for both Airbus and Boeing recently. Mr. Evrard said to address this and avoid surprises, he has adapted his organization and is increasing assistance to Airbus suppliers.

Mr. Brégier, who before becoming Airbus chief executive a year ago spent five years fixing its manufacturing as chief operating officer, said he hopes to learn from past mistakes. The apparent success of the first A350 flight won't make Airbus complacent about challenges ahead, he said.

"We will remain humble," Mr. Brégier said. "In the past, we were caught by surprise."

—David Pearson contributed to this article.


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