A version of this article appears in the July 14 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

The improvement plans of suppliers for the A350 are in the spotlight as the -900 variant moves closer to certification and entry into service and Airbus’s focus shifts from development challenges to an intense effort to ramp up production smoothly. 

The airframer has had its fair share of production challenges in recent years, most prominent among them the A380’s two-year delay due to the late discovery of cabin integration flaws. Serial programs also have been affected: The A320 family in particular experienced major hiccups when production rates were changed.

The A350 production rate stands at two per month now, even though flight testing is ongoing. MSN005, the last of the five test aircraft, just joined the campaign June 21. Meanwhile, MSN006 and MSN007, the first production-standard aircraft, are in advanced stages of assembly here. By the time the first A350  is delivered to Qatar Airways—tentatively planned for the end of November—Airbus should be building three A350s per month. It plans to increase the rate to five per month a year later and 10 per month eventually. 

But production volume is not the only hurdle. As is typical for new aircraft, Airbus also has to deliver many different so-called heads of versions, the first aircraft customized for  the launch customer. In spite of efforts to reduce customization—and thus final assembly complexity—Airbus must still provide airlines their many requested individual solutions, in particular in the cabin, where they aim to differentiate themselves.

Airbus plans to freeze the aircraft definitions for 10 customers this year, including Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Cathay Pacific. In 2015, 15 more airline definitions will follow for Lufthansa, TAP Portugal, Asiana, Air Caraibes, Etihad and Hawaiian Airlines, among others. And the definition number will rise to 17 in 2016, when carriers such as TAM, Aeroflot, United Airlines and Air China have to make final configuration decisions for their A350s.

Last year, Airbus inaugurated a Customer Definition Center at its plant in Hamburg, Germany, to provide  airlines with better facilities in which to evaluate interior design choices.

As production moves into a higher gear, however, Airbus  must ensure that its industrial suppliers can cope with the massive workload facing them in the next few years. The airframer has established a surveillance program for 213 suppliers: 90% are under standard surveillance or have to implement minor improvements, 7.5% have been given joint improvement plans specifying how they will get back on track and 2.5% are following development and transformation plans in which they are assisted by dedicated teams sent by Airbus to regain pace.

Companies in the latter category have not been identified by Airbus, but high-profile cases of production troubles in the past have included Spirit Aerosystems and Premium Aerotec, both of which are producing fuselage panels and sections. A350 Executive Vice President Didier Evrard says he has seen much improvement at Spirit, but no full recovery yet.

Most concerns have been caused by late changes to the A350 cabin design and layout. While suppliers such as Diehl Aerosystems have had to spend a lot of time and money making sure that changes are properly implemented, the extra work has so far not caused any noticeable delay.

Diehl Aerosystems CEO Rainer von Borstel says Airbus’s creation of a more strictly defined catalog for A350 interior options is reducing complexity and effort for suppliers. Diehl is responsible for a large part of the A350 cabin, and it is on track to deliver all its cabin components on time, according to von Borstel. The supplier is working on systems for aircraft past MSN020. 

In parallel to the production ramp-up, the flight-test program has been progressing. All the test aircraft are now in service and the program has surpassed the 2,000-flight-hour mark. With most critical tests completed, the concentration is on final certification items and aircraft maturity in preparation for the A350’s service entry before the end of the year.

The one major test yet to be conducted is the maximum-energy rejected-takeoff trial. Airbus has performed the high-energy rejected-takeoff equivalent to around 80% of maximum thrust level, but the full-power trial is slated for the coming weeks. Patrick du Che, head of development flight testing, says the key to keeping the test campaign on schedule has been Airbus’s ability to fly the various aircraft longer hours. “We have achieved a rate of flying that we have never seen before,” he says. “Each aircraft has flown an average of 80 hours per month.” Initially, the heaviest workload was on MSN001 and MSN003, the first two A350s to fly. But MSN002 and MSN004 are now catching up.

One important feature in the maturity campaign has been what Airbus calls Airline 1. This entails mirroring airline operations by applying key performance indicators, such as reliability or interruptions. A dedicated hangar is used for daily maintenance. MSN002 has been flying simulated long-range missions, making roundtrip flights from here with 250 Airbus employees onboard to test cabin systems and service procedures.

A more thorough route-proving campaign is to follow after certification, likely in September and October. Airbus “is preparing the plan right now,” says du Che. It is expected to take 300 flight hours over three weeks.

As the A350-900 progresses through the final phase ahead of first delivery, Airbus is nearing the first metal cut and carbon-fiber lay-up of the larger -1000 variant. The first subassemblies are to be built in the fourth quarter of 2014, as structural design definition has been completed.

The A350-1000 is slated to enter service in mid-2017. “Notionally, we want to fly in mid-2016,” says Evrard. The flight-test program is planned to last “a little less than one year,” he says. The first -1000 will come in at around Serial No. 60, when the -900 is at a relatively high production rate of five aircraft per month.

But as for the A350-800, Airbus still has no clear answer. It is contractually obliged to deliver the first aircraft in 2016, one year ahead of the -1000, although it has been trying to delay entry into service to around 2020 while redefining the version. Some observers have suggested that the -800 might be killed once a reengined A330 is formally launched.

Airbus is putting no work into the -800 now, but Evrard says shrinking the -900 would not be a very difficult task. “The -800 will not require a lot of development work. And with the backlog reduced, we have some more headroom to maneuver,” he says. The number of firm orders for the smallest A350 is down to 34.