The future of is riding to a large extent on the success of its new widebody, designed to compete head-to-head with 's hugely popular 787 and 777. And while final assembly is underway at last, the European airframer still faces major challenges before the first jet is delivered in 2014—and even before first flight next year.
Last week, Airbus gathered suppliers and customers here for the official opening of the A350 final assembly line in what is now called the Roger Beteille building. The facility will be used initially for the full final assembly process of the aircraft, until another hangar across the tarmac is added in 2014 to expand capacity. Beteille, 91, was one of the founding fathers of Airbus in the late 1960s and a key figure behind the development of the original A300 and, more than a decade later, the introduction of fly-by-wire technology for the.
But marking this corporate history was hardly the primary motivation behind the event: Airbus is trying to reassure suppliers and customers that the A350 remains on track for first flight in the summer of 2013—and on time for delivery in the second half of 2014. The aircraft manufacturer officially opened the A350 final assembly line alongside a supplier conference. “Our message is: The program is on plan and the upcoming major milestones will be on plan, too,” Chief Operating Officer Guenther Butschek said.
Suppliers have noted with concern two issues surrounding the program: Airbus's decision to introduce weight improvements and changes in several batches, which leads to extra work and some performance shortfalls for early models, and the recent wing-drilling troubles that have led to delays for later aircraft, although not for MSN1. A350 program chief Didier Evrard told suppliers that introducing the aircraft in batches is a normal process.
Some issues that have historically caused trouble in programs such as the-600 or the will only become relevant next year. Cabin installation is one such area, and suppliers are already scrambling to make specification changes on time to meet targets mostly related to weight reduction.
Airbus has attached the wings to the first A350 fuselage, MSN5000, which will be used as the static test aircraft. It is currently placed in one of the two Stations 40 that are dedicated to wing-body-joining work. The fuselage of MSN1 is adjacent to it, at Station 50. One of the wings for MSN1 has arrived and is in the final assembly hangar next to the fuselage. The other is expected to arrive early this week.
According to Evrard, Airbus has built five wings using a manual process since it discovered that software glitches in the automatic process were causing delays. Four of those wings were intended for MSN5000 and MSN1. A fifth wing is at IABG for initial load-testing ahead of the actual fatigue tests here. Evrard says the software issues caused the first automatic drilling to take around 2-3 months per wing, when it was supposed to have lasted only one month. But for MSN3, the next aircraft in the assembly process, the automatic drilling is “back on target” and Airbus has progressively reduced the manual work.
Evrard also points out that at least the first two flight-test aircraft will be kept at Airbus and no decision has been made whether to keep MSN2 and MSN4, the subsequent aircraft. Airbus plans to assemble two aircraft this year and start producing a third before year-end. In the second half of 2013, it will aim for a production rate of one aircraft per month. “Ramping up production will be crucial,” Evrard says.
Airbus plans to roll out the first A350 (MSN1) in April, though it has not specified when the aircraft will make its first flight, aside from saying it expects to reach that milestone next summer.
Work is progressing on a second assembly hall that will allow Airbus to increase production rates starting in 2014. Initial assembly is performed in one hall that includes four stations, three of which are duplicated: Station 50 for fuselage assembly, Station 40 for wing-to-body-join, and Station 30 for systems-testing and cabin installation Once the second hall is completed, the two Station 30s will move to it and another two will be added. Two more Station 40s will be added in the current building in the freed up space.
That space is needed as part of the ramp-up to producing 10 aircraft per month that is scheduled to be reached in 2017. A majority of those aircraft could actually be allocated to the largest version, the much-revamped and delayed -1000. “We expected around 40-50 aircraft per year, but we will be much better than that,” Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier says. If that decision is made, Airbus will also have to invest more into dedicated A350-1000 facilities, he concedes. Bregier insists that Airbus will build all three planned versions, even though he admits that customers have “less appetite for the -800,” the smallest variant. “The market will move slightly to bigger aircraft. But we are observing that trend with other models, too,” he says.
Airbus would not be Airbus if it could do without politics. The German government is withholding up to €600 million ($778 million) in refundable loans for the A350 for which the other governments involved (of Spain, France and the U.K.) have given the green light. Berlin wants further assurances about the German workshare in the A350 and is concerned that sites in the country might lose out in the long term. It recently blocked the proposed/ merger on the same grounds and seems to be taking a tougher stance on industry control than it has historically done. Germany also wants to acquire 15% of EADS from Daimler, although the intricacies and possible legal implications are complex and difficult to resolve.
Bregier says Germany's decision will not cause delays or put the program at risk. However, government-backed financing would help Airbus rule out risk, even if it comes with interest rates that are higher than usual.