Airbus is targeting early September 2014 as the entry into service date for the A350-900. A350 program chief Didier Evrard says that the company has set that goal on the assumption that the flight-test program and production ramp-up proceed without serious unforeseen events.

Airbus has not specified exactly when the aircraft is to be delivered to its first operator, Qatar Airways, other than to say it is targeting the second half of 2014. The fact that Airbus is now committing to a more concrete date shows that the company is becoming more comfortable with the internal planning and the results of its flight-test program. “It was important to fly rather early to have some flexibility in the program,” Evrard says.

The first flight-test aircraft, MSN001, as of today had accumulated 77 flights and 378 flight hours, while MSN003, the second flight-test aircraft, had completed three flights and 25 flight hours. Following the completion of minimum unstick speed tests (VMU, the slowest speed at which the aircraft will still take off), Airbus is preparing for flutter testing with MSN001 and icing tests with natural ice before the end of the year. The exact timing and location largely depends on the weather.

Airbus also is progressing with final assembly of MSN002, the third flight-test aircraft and the first that will have a passenger cabin installed. The company has begun installing some cabin elements such as galleys and flight-crew rest compartments, but that work is ongoing. MSN002 is planned to be ready for painting before the end of the year and final preparations before first flight in February 2014. It is crucial for Airbus to maintain that schedule because the aircraft needs about six months of testing to get the cabin certified. A February first flight would therefore take certification into the August timeframe. Early long flights—simulating long-haul airline operations—are scheduled for spring of next year.

MSN004, which is planned to fly at roughly the same time as MSN002 in February, will have a much shorter lead time because it does not have a complex cabin to be installed and will contain less flight-test instrumentation than MSN001 and MSN003.

MSN005 is to enter final assembly in October and will likely fly in May. It is the second aircraft with a cabin installed, and is the first certification-standard aircraft.

It will be followed by MSN006 in November (set to fly in August 2014), which will be the first aircraft delivered to Qatar Airways.

As Airbus is preparing for the industrial phase of the stretched A350-1000, the company is expanding capacity at its final assembly line in Toulouse. It is adding a third station 50 where the current station 59 is located, and station 59, which is used for sections preparation, will move to the other side of the final assembly line.

Currently, two of the four station 40s are used for wing assembly and two for testing, but once the second part of the final assembly line is completed, all four stations will be used for wing assembly. Further integration and outfitting work is taking place in the four station 30 bays, which are still under construction and will be used from the end of 2014. Airbus has decided to add a fifth station 30 by the end of 2015 to increase capacity.

Evrard says that the set-up will be sufficient for the planned production rate of 10 aircraft per month, and that it also has capacity reserves to go beyond that threshold if market demand is strong enough.

Airbus will be at the production rate of one per month by the end of this year, and a rate of three per month by the end of 2014. Evrard points out that he expects strong demand for the -1000 variant and that Airbus now has the flexibility to mix production between the -900 and the -1000, up to around a 50/50 split. He says the timing for the A350-800, the smallest version in the family, is still “a moving target,” but “as long as the airlines show an interest, the aircraft will be done.” The -800 has lost more than half of its backlog as Airbus has tried to convert those orders to the larger -900 and -1000. But a small group of airlines is insisting that the -800 version still be produced. The -800 backlog currently stands at 89 aircraft.

Evrard confirms that the -1000 is now “entering the industrial phase of the program,” as Airbus has begun supplying data to the tooling manufacturers. The final assembly line is to start by the end of 2015, followed by first flight in the second half of 2016 and entry into service by around mid-2017.

According to Evrard, one of the challenges will be that the aircraft will have to enter a manufacturing flow which will already be “at a very high speed.” But he says the effort is worth it, because “there is a good piece of the cake to grab.” He argues that the market for aircraft of the A350-1000’s size has grown by 29% since the launch of the A350 program, and now will total around 2,100 units over 20 years.