TOULOUSE, France: Airbus’s new A350 plane roared through its maiden flight with flying colours on Friday, leaving company executives brimming with confidence for the battle with Boeing that lies ahead.
Designed to help the European manufacturer catch up with its American rival in the market for long-haul, fuel-efficient planes, the new Airbus completed a faultless test flight from an airport close to the company’s headquarters in southern France.
After just over four hours in the air, the new plane touched down to jubilant cheers from Airbus employees and hundreds of aviation enthusiasts who had assembled on a nearby hill to watch the landmark flight.
“We were on time and everything went perfectly,” relieved Airbus boss Fabrice Bregier said after watching what he called his “new baby” cruise past the crowds on the ground at a height of just 100 metres (yards) before looping round against clear blue skies and coming in to land.
Although the flight was only the first in an intensive year-long testing programme, Airbus badly needed Friday’s showcase to pass off without any hiccups in order to maximise the potential for orders for the new plane at next week’s Paris Air Show.
“I’m confident it will be a roaring success in the market,” declared Tom Enders, the chairman of Airbus’s parent company EADS.
Peter Chandler, one of two pilots who flew the A350 for the first time, sounded like he had just got off a thoroughbred racehorse.
“We received the airplane from the final assembly line almost exactly two weeks ago and for the last week or so it has been quite obvious the plane is ready to fly and wanting to fly,” the British pilot said.
“That was obvious this morning as it was clearly much happier in the air than it has been running down the runway and stopping all the time.”
Boeing expressed its congratulations to its rival. “A new airplane is a very complex endeavour and this is a milestone the industry can celebrate together,” it said.
Much like its competitor — Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner, in service since September 2011 — the A350 makes extensive use of light composite materials that significantly reduce fuel consumption and costs.
“The aircraft is performing extremely well,” Chandler said in a video link message back to the ground staff midway through a flight that took the plane over the Pyrenees.
More than 10,000 hours of ground tests had been done on the airliner before the flight, and over the next year five test planes will criss-cross the globe in the warmest and coldest regions, at low and high speed.
If all goes well, first delivery is expected at the end of 2014.
Confirmed customers so far include Qatar Airways, British Airways and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific, and Airbus is hoping the orders next week will run into hundreds of aircraft.
Boeing still dominates the long-haul market, and Airbus has positioned its A350 between the US firm’s popular 777 and its new 787, hoping to 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 with overheating batteries — one of which caught fire — forced the worldwide grounding of the fleet.
Christophe Menard, aerospace and defence 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.
Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in terms of orders — 890 versus 613.
Airbus says the A350 will consume six percent less fuel than the 787 and 25 percent less than the 777, and the year-long test flying phase will help verify that claim, as well as diagnose any problems.
“The risk is they find other things that they hadn’t expected,” said Nick Cunningham, an aviation analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.