When I was young (about 2003 or 2004), I read once in Airliner magazine that Airbus had announced a concept for their latest family member, the Airbus A350. At the time the company was also proposing the double-deck A380 Superjumbo. While the A380 made its debut and became the awe of the world’s aircraft stage, the A350 seemed to continually be pushed back further and further, and I often wondered if it was ever going to see the light of day. Well, after years of concept art and contemplation, the A350 has joined the ranks of the Airbus family, replacing the Airbus A340 and becoming the European manufacturer’s equivalent of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Where the A350 was spawned from originally is a matter of some conjecture. Some state that when Boeing announced the Dreamliner project (then known as the 7E7) in 2003, they stated that it was being constructed to pose a serious threat to the Airbus A330, thus incurring a response from Airbus in the form of the A350. Airbus denied this however, stating that their considerations for an equivalent to the 7E7 was done in response to the environmental considerations and cost grounds of the post-9/11 world. The original concept, which was to be unveiled at the 2004 Farnborough Airshow, was originally designated the A330-200Lite, a derivative of the regular A330 but with improved aerodynamics and engines to improve efficiency, making it comparable to the 7E7. However, Airbus decided not to proceed with the 2004 launch, instead opting for a new project.
On September 16th of the same year, Airbus announced the launch of the redesigned project, but did not give a name. Early concept art of this unnamed project immediately bore a resemblance to the A330, which did not please potential customers as they saw it as a lazy modification to an existing model. As such, Airbus invested €4 billion into designing a new airliner, taking the A330 design and modifying it gradually with a new blended wing design, new engines and a new horizontal stabiliser, as well as introducing composite materials wherever possible to reduce weight. Eventually in December 2004, the aircraft was christened the A350.
The project garnered pace following its full unveiling at the 2005 Paris Air Show, during which Qatar Airways placed an order for 60 units. This was coupled with a contract signed in 2006 between Qatar and General Electric to supply GEnx-1A-72 turbofan engines for their units.
The A350 programme, upon its industrial launch in October 2005, was expected to cost approximately €3.5 billion, and would result in a 250 to 300 seat, twin-engine, wide body aircraft based primarily on the underpinnings of the Airbus A330. This was modified to include a fuselage structure which made use of aluminium-lithium rather than the carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) used on the Dreamliner. One of the most important intentions of the A350 were to match the 787 (as it was now known) in terms of range, with a flight capability of 16,300km carrying 250 passengers, and 13,900km carrying 300 passengers. These aircraft became known as the A350-800 and A350-900, respectively.
However, the biggest hump on the A350’s back was its public image. Immediately upon its launch, and with concept designs now released, stakeholders, customers, crews and passengers immediately saw the aircraft as a 787 clone, a knee-jerk reaction to the Dreamliner which brought nothing particularly new to the table in terms of capability. Following the public criticism of the project by customers ILFC (International Lease Finance Corporation) and GECAS (GE Capital Aviation Services), Airbus was urged to redesign the aircraft to give it more of an identity, essentially starting from scratch.
Airbus responded in July 2006 by Airbus’ third attempt at launching the aircraft, this time at that year’s Farnborough Airshow. This time the A350 came under the guise of the A350 XWB (Xtra-Wide-Body), and differed in that the aircraft would sport a much wider fuselage to that of the 787 and the preceding A330. Instead of between 250 and 300 passengers, the aircraft was now capable of carrying between 440 and 475 depending on internal configuration. The result was the A350 XWB outdoing the width of the 787, but not outdoing the newer iterations of the Boeing 777. The A350 also came with a standard minimum range of at least 15,000km. Once again, Airbus promoted the idea of the aircraft being built of composite materials for greater efficiency, while also allowing for higher cabin pressure and humidity at lower maintenance costs.
Eventually, the A350 XWB project was successfully approved for development at the end of 2006, with three models proposed, the A350-800, -900 and -1000. It was expected that the development of the project would cost approximately €5.5 billion and would be ready for its first flight by mid-to-late 2013. By this time Singapore Airlines, who had also ordered 787’s and had previously rejected the A350 in favour of its Boeing rival, had ordered 20 XWB’s with the option for another 20 units.
The design phase saw the aircraft be fitted with composite fuselage frames featuring aluminium strips to allow for electrical continuity in the event of a lighting strike. These were originally meant to be built from Carbon Fibre, but was rejected following criticism as to the cost of maintaining these panels. Avionics and navigation equipment was tendered to the Thales Group, Honeywell and Rockwell Collins, with Thales winning the €2 billion 20-year contract in January 2008. As for interior concept, German car manufacturer BMW was contracted to come up with the design, while Panasonic was signed on to provide in-flight entertainment equipment.
Rolls Royce immediately leapt at the opportunity to provide powerplants for the aircraft, these consisting of modified versions of the Trent 1000 turbofan engine used on the rival 787. Engines made for the A350 were designated the Trent XWB, distinguishable by their external design and thrust performance range of between 74,200lbf for the XWB-75 and 97,000lbf for the XWB-97.
However, the Trent XWB is the only engine option available for the A350 as all other potential manufacturers backed out early on. General Electric, who originally proposed the GEnx engine type for the A350 XWB, stating that their contract only applied to the original A350 concept, while also not supplying the GP7000 engine used on the Airbus A380. Pratt & Whitney on the other hand were happy to try and modify the GP7000 to be appropriate for the A350 XWB, but were eventually forced off the idea.
Aircraft production, like with all other Airbus wide-body models, was undertaken at the Toulouse factory in southwest France. Airbus incorporated brand new construction techniques to help half assembly time, primarily by way of outsourcing parts production to companies across the globe (in a similar fashion to the 787). The A350 XWB production programme saw extensive international collaboration and investments in new facilities: Airbus constructed 10 new factories in Western Europe and the US, with extensions carried out on 3 further sites. Among the new buildings was a £570 million composite facility in Broughton, Wales, which would be responsible for the wings.
Airbus manufactured the first structural component in December 2009, and production of the first fuselage barrel began in late 2010 at its production plant in Illescas, Spain. Construction of the first A350-900 centre wingbox was set to start in August 2010, while the new composite rudder plant in China opened in early 2011. Final assembly of the first A350 static test model was started on April 5th, 2012, followed by final assembly of the first prototype A350 in December 2012.
The first flight of the A350 XWB took place on June 14th, 2013, from Toulouse, undertaken by prototype F-WXWB. This was followed by the deployment of second prototype F-WWCF to the McKinley Climatic Laboratory at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in May 2014 to undergo over two weeks of climatic tests, with the aircraft being subjected to multiple climatic and humidity settings from a high of 45 °C to as low as -40 °C.
Delivery of the first Airbus A350 took place on December 22nd, 2014, followed by the first commercial flight of the type on January 15th, 2015, with A350-941 A7-ALA performing a flight from Doha to Frankfurt. Introduction into the job for which it was built, long-haul, wide-body transport, was slow for most airlines, who put the aircraft to work on shorter distance, high-capacity routes so that pilots could become accustomed to the new aircraft. It was found that 1 year after commercial
introduction, Qatar and Vietnam Airlines examples were operating at well below their capabilities, flying an average of 11.4 hours per day. On the other hand, Finnair have used them extensively on their long distance routes to the Far East, helping to speed up the airline’s retirement of their ageing Airbus A340’s.
Teething problems in service have so far included three areas: The onboard Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul (MRO) network needed software improvements; Airbus issued service bulletins regarding onboard equipment and removed galley inserts (coffee makers, toaster ovens) because of leaks; and has had to address spurious overheating warnings in the bleed air system by retrofitting an original connector with a gold-plated connector. Airbus targets a 98.5% dependability by the end of 2016 and to match the mature A330 reliability by early 2019. However, by comparison, the Airbus A350’s minor issues pale in comparison to the multiple failures of the Boeing 787, including battery fires and other issues which saw the fleet grounded several times.
So far, the A350 XWB has not suffered a single operational incident or accident, and, as of 2018, 133 units have been delivered with a further 858 on order. While this is not as strong as the Boeing 787’s 1,287 orders, it is still impressive, and puts the aircraft in good stead as a suitable competitor. The A350 has seen particular success in Asia and Europe, and has also seen its first orders by North American carrier Delta Airlines, succeeding where the A340 it replaced had failed.
The A350 is an aircraft which seemed to sit in development hell for years and was frequently derided as a copycat version of Boeing’s upcoming 787. I can say with honesty that I was one of those detractors once upon a time, and hardly expected the aircraft to ever live up to its promises, or, at the very least, ever make it into the sky. However, myself and many others were proven wrong by the supposed copycat, and now it has proven its worth greatly, even surpassing the Boeing 787 in terms of its seemingly smooth entry into commercial service. The A350 XWB does live up to its promises, and one hopes its record for safety and reliability is comparable to that of its trusty forebears.