Third Time's a Charm Airbus Has Fewer Headaches with New A350 Jet

The new A350 from European airplane manufacturer Airbus is expected to go into service this year. The long-haul plane, which can carry up to 300 passengers, is experencing far fewer problems than the A380 or its Boeing competitor, the 787 Dreamliner.

By Marco Evers in Toulouse, France


Test pilot Wolfgang Absmeier, 54, has accumulated hundreds of hours of flight-time in the A350, the brand new high-tech jet from Airbus. He has brought the prototype to the very limits of its capabilities over the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean. The pilot has flown too fast and too slow, he's induced dozens of stalls -- and yet he has always managed to bring the giant plane back under control.

What has surprised him the most during the vast number of test flights? Absmeier thinks for a moment. "The surprise," the German pilot says, "was that there weren't any surprises."

That is indeed astounding. Normally, a series of glitches are an unavoidable part of developing a new plane. The A380 super jumbo jet and the Airbus military transport plane A400M were both plagued by years of delays and billions of euros in necessary improvements. But the A350 -- Europe's answer to Boeing's fuel-saving 787, which has experienced birth defects similar to those of the A380 and A400M -- seems to be taking off with only a modest delay and cost overruns that are still within the realm of the reasonable.

Since it first took flight last June, Absmeier says, the A350 has flown without any major problems. A couple of the four prototypes take off from the Airbus factory in Toulouse almost every day. The test program required for approval includes approximately 2,500 hours of flight time, of which the planes have now flown 1,500. If no problems crop up that require serious modifications, the wide-bodied jet -- which can carry about 300 people depending on the configuration -- will be able to enter service later this year.

In the production hall, technicians in blue overalls are working on plane No. 006, the first to roll off the new A350 assembly line. The space is so cavernous that sounds ebb away like in a cathedral. The wings have been mounted and monitors are blinking in the cockpit.

Fifty-three percent of the A350's airframe is made using modern composite materials that are lighter than the aluminum used heretofore. The result is significant fuel efficiency improvements. Because the high-tech materials neither corrode nor suffer from material fatigue, the maintenance costs are also expected to be lower. All of this translates to significant cost savings, which makes the new aircraft attractive to airlines.

Plane 006 is expected to be delivered to Qatar Airways, the first customer, by December. It is just one of 80 A350s that the rapidly growing airline has ordered, and it will arrive only one year later than expected. With a project like this one, with an estimated total development budget of over €12 billion ($17 billion), this essentially represents a perfect landing.

A New Era

With the A350, a new era is beginning for Airbus and passengers. In contrast to the prestigious, but hard-to-sell loss leader that is the A380, this frugal long-haul jet is already promising to become a blockbuster for the company. Airbus has 812 orders on its books from airlines as renowned as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa. For the next two or three decades, the model is to make up a significant portion of Airbus' business.

Thousands of jobs in Germany too, with its Airbus factories and suppliers, are dependent on the success of the A350 program. Parts of the fuselage and the vertical stabilizer are built in facilities near Hamburg. The landing flaps come from Bremen, where the British-built wings are also equipped with electric and hydraulic wiring. The A350 will be shown to the German public for the first time at the end of May at the ILA Berlin Air Show.

Absmeier and his colleagues have flown the plane, which is outfitted with 20 tons of testing equipment, to the North Pole and to La Paz, Bolivia, which, at 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), is home to the world's highest airport. The plane has landed above the Arctic Circle in Canada and in the Arabian Desert.

Soon, though, things are going to get even tougher. This month, it will arrive at the McKinley Climatic Laboratory, a legendary airplane torture chamber. The jet will be cooled to minus 43 degrees Celsius (-45.4 degrees Fahrenheit) in a special US Air Force hangar. All systems must continue to function without a hitch. Soon after, the plane will be heated up to 46 degrees (115 degrees Fahrenheit) and must pass the same tests.

'Too Stable'

The A350 already withstood its most impressive test shortly before Christmas in Toulouse. Those who get nervous about in-flight turbulence will take solace at the thought of the "Ultimate Load Test." All new airplanes must undergo the test, which involves pulling up the wing tips to the most extreme degree imaginable in flight. Then the engineers raise the load by another 50 percent. The plane must be able to withstand this mistreatment -- one, two, three seconds. After the fourth second the wing can (and should) break apart.

The A350, of course, also withstood this test, but not with a perfect result. "The wing didn't break," says Absmeier, almost regretfully. "It's actually too stable." It displeases the test-pilot because the results show that the wing could have been built even lighter.

The wings are the A350's specialty. It is the world's first commercial aircraft to have flaps that will be computer-controlled throughout the flight to maintain the most aerodynamic profile possible, thus conserving fuel. Further economization of jet fuel is expected through new, highly efficient engines manufactured by Rolls Royce.

Absmeier has been working on the A350 since 2005, long before Airbus made the final decision to manufacture the aircraft. The test pilot has spent considerable time attending meetings focused on optimization, at conferences and particpating in at-times rancorous debates. Not to mention his time in the flight simulator. "We have the difficult part behind us," he says. The pilot adds that one of the key factors in the success of the test flights is that all the materials, components, systems and computer programs were tested during the A350's long planning period.

A Risky Endeavor

That was necessary, too. The construction of a completely new, high-tech airplane is the most risky endeavor an airline manufacturer can undertake. Errors in design and production of the A380 led to billions of euros in cost overruns -- for the company as well as taxpayers in its partner countries.

Boeing has been developing the 787 Dreamliner for a decade now and its nightmare hasn't yet ended. First, finalization of the aircraft was delayed for years. Then, its new lithium-ion batteries caught fire during early passenger operations. Aircraft that had already been delivered had to be grounded until the company could deliver improvements, a process that took more than three months.

Industry experts estimate that Boeing has spent more than $30 billion developing the Dreamliner, despite its original plan to invest around $6 billion. After all that investment, the aircraft still hasn't proven reliable enough. Two out of 100 flights are delayed because of technical problems. Despite all this, the airlines' interest in the 787's lightweight and fuel-saving design remains high. The company still has 1,000 orders for the aircraft on its books. But doubts and impatience are growing.

Lessons from the A380 Fiasco

Airbus learned from its own A380 fiasco. During its development, Airbus engineers based in Hamburg used different design software from their colleagues in Toulouse. Because the programs and the engineers had communications difficulties, cabling in the half-completed aircraft was too short. It had to be corrected through expensive, tedious manual work.

To prevent a scenario like that from happening again, all A350 engineers -- whether at Airbus or one of its major suppliers -- work exclusively with a single digital model, which shows the aircraft in the minutest of details. If a change is made, it becomes immediately visible to all across the network.

The computer model is later followed up with the construction of an "Iron Bird." The flightless A350 prototype has existed since 2010 and is at the center of the design process. It is 14 meters tall and weighs 170 tons. The mock up is essentially a full-sized model of the aircraft, with every aviation system, every cable, every hose, every valve and every moveable part.

When a cockpit simulator connects with the Iron Bird, test pilots can see what's included in the guts of the new aircraft, how the systems work together and what happens if important parts fail long before the first flight takes place. "Only after everything works in the simulator do we climb onboard the real aircraft," Absmeier says.

Originally, Airbus had also wanted to include lithium ion batteries in the A350, but given the doubts about lithium technology following the Boeing Dreamliner fiasco, Airbus has shifted to nickel cadmium batteries. They weigh 80 kilograms more, but they also eliminate a further risk for Airbus in obtaining its air-worthiness certificate for the aircraft.

More Comfort?

Airbus says the new A350 will offer additional new comfort to passengers. The cabin is 12.7 centimeters (5 inches) wider than the 787 at the arm-rest level -- which led Airbus to christen the aircraft with a second name: XWB, or "eXtra Wide Body."

In addition, the aircraft's Economy Class has space for seats that are (2 centimeters) 0.78 inches wider than those in the 787's typical configuration. Airbus' marketing department claims that this tiny difference is decisive for the comfort of passengers on long-haul flights.

With some airlines, though, passengers will have no opportunity to enjoy the extra space. Instead of the nine seats per row envisioned for the aircraft, they will be squished into 10.

Officials at Airbus are fond of stating that they have a special obligation to their passengers, but when it comes to the configuration of seats on its aircraft, they are also always willing to accomodate their airline customers.


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