One of the industry's worst-kept secrets was that there was going to be more to come, when Airbus announced a delay to the A350-800 and -1000 at this year's Paris air show. The only questions were: When would a schedule shift for the baseline A350-900 be announced and how extensive would it be?

On the eve of the Dubai air show, Airbus provided the answers: November 2011, and the delay will be up to six months. The start of final assembly of the first A350-900 is pushed into 2012; it was previously planned before the end of 2011. First flight is now targeted for the first half of 2013 and service entry a year later. Airbus booked a €200 million ($272 million) charge for the program in the third quarter.

According to Didier Evrard, head of the A350 program, the pacing item causing the delay is the late arrival of center fuselage panels at the final assembly line. They are produced at Spirit AeroSystems' Saint Nazaire, France, plant.

But Evrard also points out that the center fuselage is one of the most complex pieces and requires the longest lead time in the pre-final-assembly process. “This is not only about suppliers, but also about complexity,” he says. Other items also might have affected the schedule, he adds, even if the panels had been delivered on time.

Evrard hints that there are still outstanding issues, particularly with Tier 2 suppliers. Airbus has put so-called joint improvement plans in place during the past several months in an effort to improve Tier 2 readiness and detailed parts manufacturing. “We needed to reach an acceptable level of traveled work,” he says. “We need to control this, otherwise we would not be able to control the lead time and efficiency.” (Traveled work refers to assembly, test and checkout tasks that have to be completed out of sequence.)

Airbus has every reason to be cautious with traveled work. The company recently experienced its own production mess on the A380 program and watched the troubles Boeing has had getting the 787 final assembly line up and running.

Industry sources say the A350-900 is now more than three months behind schedule, although Airbus does not specify the timing. The flight-test plan has not changed.

Evrard concedes that it is still a challenge “to fight for the first aircraft” and at the same time prepare for the production ramp-up.

A350 Chief Engineer Gordon McConnell says there have been “very few issues” during the assembly of major components. While the aircraft's aerodynamic design is frozen, Airbus is still working on eliminating “parasitic drag” in places such as the air inlet and outlet.

Although the schedule slip was expected, customers could be annoyed. Several months ago, many of them pushed the manufacturer to provide an update. At the time, Airbus announced delays of 18 months to two years for the later versions, the A350-1000 and A350-800, which are now expected to be delivered in 2017 and 2016, respectively. That decision was mainly intended to allow more time for Rolls-Royce to upgrade the Trent XWB engine and to free up engineering resources for the A350-900. But Airbus insisted in Paris that the -900 would not be affected, although several suppliers had already hinted at the time that detailed design of crucial parts was late and that they were receiving conflicting advice.

The -900 shift is particularly significant, as some customers, such as Emirates, are considering moving their orders from the larger -1000 to the baseline version. Emirates President Tim Clark has indicated just that. According to the new schedule, the gap between the expected entry-into-service dates of the A350-900 and the -1000 narrows, although it is still at roughly three years.

Another not-so-surprising decision is the termination of A340 production. Airbus has not seen any sales recently. All of the 246 ordered A340-200s and -300s have been delivered. Airbus lists 133 orders and 129 deliveries for the A340-500/600 program, all of which are understood to have been built. The first A340-300 was delivered in 1993.

The A340's mediocre sales performance is mainly due to two factors: Boeing and General Electric managed to make the GE90-powered 777 into a combination that Airbus found impossible to beat with the later and larger A340-500 and -600 version. And at the same time, Airbus improved its own A330-200 and -300 to an extent that made the four-engine A340 superfluous eventually, because the later A330 versions could be deployed on what would have traditionally been A340 missions.