The Nov. 24 first flight of the Airbus A350-1000 marks the start of a flight test campaign and certification process that is scheduled to conclude before the end of 2017, with delivery of the first customer aircraft to Qatar Airways.

The flight departed at 10:42 a.m. local time at Toulouse-Blagnac Airport with experimental test pilots Hugues van der Stichel and Frank Chapman at the controls and Gerard Maisonneuve as the test flight engineer in the cockpit. A total of six crew were on board, including Patrick du Che, Emanuele Costanzo and Stephane Vaux as flight test engineers. The aircraft landed back in Toulouse after a flight of 4 hr., 20 min.

In the early phase of the flight, van der Stichel and Chapman took the aircraft to an altitude of 15,000 ft. and initially left the gear extended with flaps in the 3 position. They checked and cleared pressurization and also decelerated to 145 kt., the lowest speed in the configuration. The aircraft also accelerated to the maximum speed in the flaps 3 configuration of 206 kt. and reported no vibration as planned. The gear was retracted, extended and retracted again.

While the takeoff was made in direct law, the crew later switched to normal law. The aircraft later climbed to 25,000 ft. and accelerated to maximum speed with flaps retracted.

Following some high-speed testing, the aircraft descended to 10,000-15,000 ft. for further low-speed tests and landing preparations. After a low pass at 500 ft. over the airfield, the aircraft touched down.

Chapman says that the aircraft behaved “remarkably similar to the -900, which is good news.” Van der Stichel says the crew “reached all targets.”

Airbus plans to use three aircraft for the test campaign. MSN059, used for the first flight, and MSN071, have heavy test equipment installed. MSN071 is expected to fly “in the coming weeks,” according to Airbus Senior Sice President Marketing Francois Caudron. MSN065 will have a full passenger cabin installed. Airbus expects to conclude flight tests in less than one year.

At 73.8 meters (242.1 ft.), the -1000 is almost exactly 8 meters longer than the baseline -900. The aircraft is designed to seat around 360 passengers depending on the interior configuration, and is targeted at the Boeing 777-300ER replacement market. It is powered by Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 engines.

While flight testing of the relatively simple derivative aircraft may not prove to be a major challenge given the experience of the recent A350-900 campaign, the introduction of the -1000 into the Airbus production system is making an already challenging  task of meeting delivery targets more complex. Caudron says it is “too soon” to disclose details about -1000 production ramp-up. Several customer aircraft are in final assembly now. Qatar Airways is expected to receive its first A350-1000 as launch operator in the second half of 2017.

The manufacturer has constantly missed original delivery targets for the -900s by several months and is struggling to meet its own internal target to hand over 50 A350s in 2016. A total of 35 aircraft have been delivered so far this year, and a total of 45 are currently in airline service. Ramp-up of production has been slowed mainly due to supplier issues – Zodiac in particular has been unable to deliver seats and lavatories in time. But Airbus President and CEO Fabrice Bregier says the situation is “much improved.” He adds that “the trend is extremely positive” with outstanding work now on a “low level” and the quality of sections and cabin interiors better than before.

Airbus is considering whether to launch an even larger version of the A350, dubbed the A350-2000. That aircraft would be pitched against the proposed 777-10X, which Boeing has been discussing with airline customers. Both manufacturers are understood to have offered the largest versions of their twin widebodies to Singapore Airlines, which may conclude an aircraft acquisition campaign by the end of this year. But Bregier plays down the likelihood of launching a -2000 in the near term. “It is too early to say, I am not convinced there is a large enough market.” Internal studies have been done, but “the -1000 has killed the 777-300ER, so Boeing was forced to launch the -9X. What we wanted has been achieved.” As far as the proposed -2000 is concerned, “we are far away from a business case.”

There are currently 195 orders for the A350-1000s. However, sales have been slow lately, partly because of concerns about existing overcapacity in the widebody market and growing uncertainty about global trade and international politics. This trend has also hit other programs like the 777X or the A330neo and, more importantly, the 747-8 and A380. Bregier says Airbus has the industrial flexibility to build up to five -1000s per month, the equivalent of 50% of total A350 production at maximum planned output.