A350 XWB: Moving to Reality?

While the 787 may lay claim tothe unwanted tag of longest development from go-ahead to first flight and delivery, the A350 XWB can claim the longest design phase having been initially offered to customers in December 2004 with the final design of the lead -900 variant only being frozen in 2011, after two major redesign efforts.

However, both the 787 and A350 XWB are paradigm shifts in materials, systems and production processes that will clearly form the basis of medium- to long-haul twin-aisle aircraft designs for the next 50 years. And over the next 20 years alone that market is put at 7,330 aircraft worth $1.77 trillion, almost as large by value as the 23,370 single-aisle aircraft worth $1.95 trillion that Boeing forecasts will be ordered.

The stakes are high and the need to get it “just right” is critical, overshadowed by a troubled history in the last two decades of designs falling short on both fuel burn and reliability. In the 250- to 350-seat category, the MD-11 and A340 have been eclipsed by the 777, as that aircraft emerged as the industry’s most reliable and fuel efficient twin-aisle at the longer range end of the market. In the medium range segment, the A330 has swept aside the 767—and Boeing’s attempts to update the model.

With the A350 XWB Airbus has taken the ambitious step of trying to take on both the 787 and the 777, something that a number of key industry players have questioned. In 2007, Air Lease Corp. Chairman and CEO Steven Udvar-Hazy said that “there are challenges” in taking on the 777 and 787 with a single platform.

Enhanced performance?

Udvar-Hazy’s caution was played out at the Paris Air Show in June with Airbus and Rolls-Royce moving to improve the performance of the 350-seat A350-1000, although at an 18 month cost to the EIS, which moves to 2017. But the improvements did not appear to please its core customers. Airbus unveiled a modified -1000 model featuring a higher thrust—97,000 lb.—variant of the Trent XWB engine being developed by Rolls-Royce that will give the aircraft another 4.5 tonnes of payload, or 400 nm. of range.

EADS CEO Louis Gallois was quick to put gloss on the delay. “The delays are not caused by bungling or production glitches. The A350 is the best-managed program at Airbus by far and the program is under control,” he said. “This is not about delays but about improvements in the program.”

But the improvements come at a price, said Airbus COO Fabrice Bregier, who noted that the changes would add an extra $9 million to the A350 XWB’s $299.7 million price tag. And Airbus also delayed the EIS of the smaller 270-seat -800 model by two years because demand has moved to the larger 314-seat -900, which remains on schedule for 2013, according to the company. “The first customers of the A350-800 XWB have decided to migrate to the -900,” Bregier said. “We have listened to the market.”

Thus far, 42 orders have been converted from -800s to -900s. Airbus COO-Customers John Leahy insisted that no customers were upset by the changes but Bregier admitted that discussions with existing airlines on the price hike will be subject to sensitive negotiations.

Leahy said that the manufacturer has had “pretty good” success with A350-900 and -800 orders but has seen “softness” in -1000 sales. Orders for the -900 with a 2013 EIS total 359 while commitments for the -800 number 140. Orders for the -1000 total just 74 and airlines have been asking Airbus to “give us more performance” on the model, according to Leahy. Whereas the prior version of the A350-1000 fell short of matching the 777-300ER in terms of performance, the new version will “surpass” the Boeing aircraft, Leahy asserted.

While Leahy insisted that customers were happy about the changes, clearly some are not. Emirates President Tim Clark tells ATWthat, according to the airline’s calculations, the -1000 needs a 105,000 lb. thrust engine to truly leapfrog the 777-300ER, which means a new fan and significant wing pylon and undercarriage modifications. Clark is also leery on the weight of the -1000 and is not prepared to make a commitment until there is more clarity. “There [are] going to be more modifications and they will add weight,” he says.

“The jury is out,” Clark warns. “And we were not consulted on this final configuration.” He says that the airline never intended to put the -1000 on its longest haul routes and it wants the original configuration and timeline.

And Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker was also critical about the changes and told media at the Paris Air Show that he may cancel the airline’s commitment for the -1000 or change them to -900s. Al Baker claimed that the changes give only marginal benefit over the 777-300ER. Replying to the criticism, an Airbus spokesperson told ATWthat the A350-1000 will do the same job as the 777-300ER with 20 tonnes less structural weight and consuming 25% less fuel on every mission.

Clark notes, however, that GE can achieve a significant improvement in SFC of the GE90 for the 777 harnessing technologies from the GEnx and Leap-X programs. “What is Boeing waiting for?” asks Clark. Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Jim Albaugh told ATWthat the company will have an answer to the A350-1000 on the 777. “Whether it’s incremental improvements or a significant derivative remains to be seen,” Albaugh said. “We’ll take whatever action we need to take on the 777 to make sure that we maintain the 777’s advantage.”

A significant amount of the debate on the A350’s claimed advantage over the 777-300ER relates to the age-old seat count differences between the archrivals.

In the Emirates three-class configuration, the A350-1000 was to seat 317 passengers, whereas the 777-300ER seats 355—a difference of 38. But the Airbus count puts the difference at just 15. Helping to confuse the numbers, Emirates is drawing up a new configuration plan for the A350-1000 taking advantage of new and more compact galley technology that lifts the seat count to 340. However, Clark believes he may be able to add two seat rows—20 seats—to the 777-300ER using the same galleys, which would maintain or possibly extend that advantage.

Regardless, the A350-1000 is now more capable with 400 nm. more range. “That’s an extra hour of flying,” noted Leahy. Airbus EVP-A350 XWB Program Didier Evrard told media at Le Bourget: “We have more time to optimize [the -1000] and the market can wait a little bit for this enhanced aircraft.” He added that Airbus expects the A350-1000’s first flight to take place in 2016.

Rolls said the new version of the Trent XWB will deliver 97,000 lbs. maximum thrust. “The additional thrust will be achieved by the inclusion of new high temperature turbine technology, increasing the size of the engine core and advanced fan aerodynamics,” it said. “This will help Airbus to offer increased range and capacity for the A350-1000.” Importantly, the engine’s fan size will not change, meaning Airbus will not have to make significant wing modifications.

Airbus Chief of A350 XWB Marketing Sophie Pendaries explains that the company had been extremely careful in what it was trying to achieve with the -1000. “We have the range/fuel efficiency balance just right,” Pendaries claims.

Challenging Timelines

Meanwhile, Evrard said the manufacturer is “heading toward the final assembly line by the end of 2011” for the static test A350-900. While Airbus has pushed out the EIS of the -1000 and the -800 by up to two years, doubts linger about the -900 timeline, which has not changed from a 2013 EIS.  New York-based Bernstein Research forecast last August that A350 deliveries would slip into 2014 and only eight aircraft would be delivered that year, flagging a significant slippage in the program.

Airbus’s Pendaries assures ATWthat the program is on time for EIS in 2013. “The first flight will be at the end of 2012 with a one-year certification,” she maintains. Pendaries insists that Airbus has learned from the A380 and 787 design and production issues. “We were still in the design phases when the 787 issues were surfacing and we were able to make design changes to the A350,” she says.

Clark, however, remains cautious, telling ATWthat the airline has moved its -900 EIS to 2015. Airbus, to its credit, has been frank on the production and certification issues for the A350 program. At Paris, Evrard termed it “very challenging.”

Bregier outlined the risks at an Investor & Analyst breakfast at the show. These included: supply chain readiness for detailed parts (clips, brackets, tubes and pipes); learning of production support teams; travelled work from components to pre-final assembly line and FAL; preparation of the ramp-up; design cleaning and maturity; manufacturing processes capability; supply chain performance; and, resources and test results involving changes. Bregier added that while risks are being mitigated at each maturity gate and through “Alert and Fix” principles, there is no room in the planning for significant problems. In fact, the A350 XWB’s flight test program has been compressed from the original 15 to 12 months, making system maturity critical.

However, good progress is being made, says Airbus. All the main challenges related to new technology have been demonstrated in full scale, and Critical Design Reviews for systems and airframe components have been successfully closed together with partners. According to Evirad, there is a “high design maturity before the start of the assembly phase,” while cabin definition and overall aircraft configuration for the first two customer aircraft have been frozen. Importantly, functional integration tests at Airbus and systems suppliers are now in operational mode more than one year before the first flight. At Rolls-Royce, engine testing is progressing well and the engine for the A380 Flying Test Bed is under acceptance at the engine maker.

Airbus risk mitigation philosophy on the A350 XWB is to split the make and buy equation 50:50 with critical components kept within the company. The large risk sharing aerostructure partners are Spirit in Kinston, N.C., Aerolia in Meaulte, France, GKN Aerospace at Filton in the UK and Premium Aerotec in Nordenham, Germany.

In the third quarter, work on major component assemblies will commence at a series of Airbus facilities across Europe. Broughton in the UK is the site for wing box assembly while the aft fuselage and vertical tailplane will be built up at Hamburg. The A350 nose, front and center fuselage will come together at St. Nazaire in France and Getafe, Spain is the site for the horizontal tail construction. The pylon and nacelle are being built in Toulouse, the site of the final assembly line.

Systems installation at the pre-FALs is due to start in the fourth quarter. In all there are 55 suppliers and 125 work packages.

In December, Airbus started making the first carbon fiber barrel for the A350 fuselage at the company’s production plant in Illescas, Spain. Most of the fuselage is made from long carbon fiber panels, which Airbus maintains are easier to manufacture and assemble than barrel sections. However, for the rear part of the fuselage, which is tapered, Airbus selected a barrel as the optimum structure. By May every structure supplier to the program had successfully produced carbon fiber components.

Virtual flights

Airbus commenced virtual flights in a dedicated A350 XWB “iron bird” rig located in Toulouse in May. The mechanical structure will be home to months of electrical hydraulic and flight-control systems integration testing. At the same time Airbus also commenced testing of the A350’s high-lift system at a full-scale test rig in Bremen.

The aircraft’s cabin systems are also being tested in a unique test rig featuring waste, water, communications and air supply that can be tested in stand alone or integrated environments.

Another rig in Filton is now testing the aircraft’s nose-gear and main landing-gear units that are built by Liebherr Aerospace and Messier-Dowty, respectively.

At Paris, Airbus executives were upbeat on the position of the program. Bregier said that “new CFRP technology is ready for manufacturing and systems maturity was developing well with major integration test benches already in service.” He added that the first large parts were manufactured and the focus was moving to pre-FAL start for component assembly and then systems installation. But he also conceded that “challenges remain” to reach the start of FAL at year end with an appropriate level of quality to enable the ramp-up. However, Bregier was bullish that risks are being managed through lessons learned from previous programs.

More bearish is Bernstein Research, which said in a special July 1 EADS report that while the A350 XWB “can be become a dominant large widebody program, risks remain high.” Bernstein said that while the increase in performance of the -1000 was positive it was disappointed that there was no change to the seat count. It also noted Qatar’s disappointment.

“The other question on this program is how challenging will it be to take the engine thrust up and ensure the airframe is adequate for the A350-1000.”

Bernstein said it believed it would be adequate, based on the size of the wing, although it says many are skeptical. “We know that Airbus has had to make modifications to increase the size of the trailing edge of the A350-1000 already,” Bernstein said. “Still if the A350-1000 can perform as promised, it should be a very successful aircraft.”

Bernstein, however, is doubtful on “the heavy” A350-800, saying the aircraft may be scrapped, which it would view positively. “We see significant risk on the A350 XWB program as there has been on nearly every commercial program in the last 10 years. This is a difficult program as management has acknowledged,” warns Bernstein.

But like the 787, the A350 XWB holds great promise and it will be fascinating to see how yet another titanic aircraft sales and production struggle will play out.

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