With its first Airbus A400M Atlas handed over, attention is now being focused on how the French air force will put the new European airlifter through its paces.

The handover on Sept. 30, some 10 years after Airbus Military was contracted to build the airlifter for Europe's air arms, and almost four years since the maiden flight, marks the beginning of what will be the real test of the aircraft. As the keys to France's first A400M—MSN7—were transferred during ceremonies in Seville, Spain, and later at Orleans AB, France, foreign air force officials have turned their focus toward France as to how it will integrate the new airlifter into daily operations.

A smooth entry into service is not only needed for France as the A400M Atlas begins to replace the country's aging fleet of C-160 Transalls, but also for Airbus Military, which believes it can capture 50% of the market share for large transport aircraft over the next 30 years. It estimates exports of 300-400 aircraft worldwide.

“France, along with the U.K., is one of a few European countries that have a lot of credibility because of how they use their aircraft, so other countries will be watching what they do with interest,” says one company executive.

Opportunities for A400M will no doubt be boosted by the announced closure of the Boeing C-17 line in 2015. Although some insist that the C-17 was not a competitor to the A400M, the U.S. aircraft has been a thorn in the side of the European program, with several customer nations examining a buy of the C-17 Globemaster to offset delays in the A400M program. Indeed, the U.K. was one of those nations that leased and later bought its fleet outright to gain the airlift capability it needed.

While it is unlikely that the C-17 line could have been sustained on the small number of exports once all the U.S. Air Force aircraft had been delivered, the C-17 could have still been a threat to A400M sales, particularly in markets in the Middle East or Asia. It seems likely that the remaining “white-tailed” 13 C-17s will be snapped up by unnamed customers or sold as top-up orders from existing operators.

The formal handover comes eight weeks after MSN7 arrived at Orleans. France's second aircraft, MSN8, which made its first flight in June, is also expected to be handed over within the next two weeks. Technical issues with the aircraft, understood to be a series of leaks, has held up the transfer, while France's third aircraft, which had been due to be delivered by the end of the year, is now expected in early January. The French defense procurement agency, DGA, states that it is only expecting to take delivery of one more aircraft before the end of the year.

Turkey's first aircraft, MSN9, is also scheduled for delivery in three weeks. The Seville-based San Pablo factory is now a hive of activity following the delivery of A400M components destined for the second U.K. Royal Air Force aircraft, MSN17. The U.K.'s first aircraft will be MSN16 and is due to be delivered in September 2014.

France is working to minimize the risk of the type's introduction into service. The A400M Multinational Entry into Service Team (MEST), also based at Orleans, is run by a group of French personnel who have so far identified close to 1,500 different tasks that need to be carried out for the type's safe operation, both in terms of deployment and troubleshooting. The team is helping to develop procedures for towing, engine and propeller changes, removal and installation of major components, and many other day-to-day and further-out procedures. The MEST team is also putting a paperless system through its paces. It will ultimately be used by maintenance departments.

The U.K. is partnering with the MEST with four RAF personnel, including one engineer, one logistics specialist and two technicians embedded into the MEST at Orleans. A British pilot and a loadmaster are expected to join the group shortly. Senior French air force personnel were part of an exchange program in the U.K., where they flew the C-130J to gain experience with the glass cockpit in large military airlifters.

The French air force's first 10 pilots, four co-pilots, eight loadmasters and 71 technicians have been trained by Airbus Military in Toulouse and Seville, but in the future, this experience will be gained in new facilities being built at Orleans. The site will be shared with the German air force, following the inking of a joint agreement during the ceremonies at Orleans.

Maintenance technicians and logistical mission personnel from both countries will be trained at Wunstorf airbase in Germany beginning in summer 2015, while crew training for tactical missions will take place at the newly constructed Orleans facility. French air force crews begin their sessions in 2014; their German colleagues will start in 2018. Germany's first aircraft, MSN18, is due to be delivered in November 2014. Commanders say they are open to the idea of more nations joining the partnership.

Meanwhile, test pilots from the French air force's military air experimentation center (CEAM) will be validating the Standard Operating Clearances (SOC) as they are released by Airbus Military. France's first two aircraft, along with Turkey's first A400M, are delivered in an Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) configuration, but the French air forces' third aircraft will be delivered with SOC1. An SOC1.5 capability, which will enable elements of tactical flying—including the basic ability to conduct airdrops and aerial refueling—will come toward the end of 2014.

CEAM will test the aircraft into 2018 when SOC3—A400M's full-operational capability—comes online. France wants to achieve the low-level tactical flying using onboard automatic terrain, along with system and inflight refueling for both combat aircraft and helicopters, along with many other capabilities.

The A400M program represents a major stride in trying to standardize Europe's wide-ranging military requirements. Airbus Military CEO Domingo Urena-Raso noted during the handover that the introduction of the aircraft celebrated, among other things, “what Europe can achieve when it gets its act together.”

But industry officials say that more work needs to be done. EADS CEO Tom Enders says he was determined not to repeat the errors made during development of the A400M, and he calls on Europe's defense ministers to push for greater levels of integration to develop a unified military certification body and to do for the military what the European Aviation Safety Agency has done for civil aviation.

“The A400M saga is rich in lessons for future multinational defense co-operation,” says Enders.

He notes that the program had faced “unrealistic schedules,” and that discrete requirements from some nations (he did not name them) had “gone beyond physics.” He hopes the issues will be “picked up in the upcoming European Union defense summit.”

Airbus Military's current program calls for delivery of 174 A400Ms to eight customers, but several partner nations are trying to reduce their orders. Spain, in particular, seeks to cut its buy by more than half, while France's military program act calls for 15 A400Ms in the 2014-19 timeframe, and a white paper report called for a fleet of 50 transport aircraft, including C-130s and CN235s, which could also result in a reduced complement of A400Ms procured. But Airbus Military says no procurement reduction discussions have taken place. Indeed the only country to have formally reduced its A400M order is the U.K., which signed for 22 aircraft rather than the 25 it initially planned.