With European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) certification now in place for the A350-900, Airbus is shifting gears to prepare for first delivery of the aircraft and a steep production ramp-up.
EASA issued the type certificate for the Airbus A350-900 on Sept. 30 following an almost flawless flight-test campaign that started in June 2013 and involved five test aircraft. “We dealt with a very mature aircraft,” EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky says. “Airbus and EASA have learnt from experience and have established pragmatic working methods which have proved to be the recipe for the successful type certification and the way forward for future certification programs.” The A350 was the first all-new Airbus aircraft certified by EASA.
While the latter phase of development and flights tests took place without the huge delays and disruptions to which the industry has become accustomed, the A350 went through several iterations in the early project phase that included an updated version of the A330 initially and later several material selections or fuselage changes. The latest turn in the A350 strategy affects the A350-800, development of which Airbus says is “frozen,” a euphemism for being scrapped. In its August statistics for orders and deliveries, Airbus still listed 34 firm orders for the type, but program head Didier Evrard says more airlines have agreed to transition either to the recently launched A330neo or the larger A350-900.
The aircraft maker plans to deliver the first A350-900 to Qatar Airways before year-end. That aircraft, MSN006, is now “ready to be transferred to the flight-test team,” Evrard says. The exact delivery date will be determined jointly with the carrier in the coming weeks, he says, during which time Airbus is working on familiarizing Qatar Airways with the aircraft. Evard says that will require “a number of flights,” but it is difficult to predict just how many flights or hours. But he says, “If I were a golf player, I would say we are on the green.”
Meanwhile, the next challenge, ramp up of production, is nearing. Airbus plans by year-end to reach a build rate of three per month from the current two, and by the end of 2015, it aims to produce five A350s per month. Output is to be expanded to 10 aircraft per month by 2018. However, chief salesman John Leahy is concerned that Airbus may not build enough A350s to meet demand. “We are being prudent, but it bothers me,” he says. Airbus might soon decide to raise production rates, he indicated at the Istat conference in Istanbul late last month. “I believe this will be decided sometime next year,” he said.
Airbus had orders for 750 A350s at the time of certification of the first version. The -900 is by far the most popular version, with 547 firm commitments, followed by 169 orders for the A350-1000 and 34 for the -800, which will most likely never be built. Leahy said the further stretch represented by the -800, while technically possible, might not be a good idea.
For the A350-900, Airbus expects to receive FAA approvals “very shortly,” according to chief engineer Gordon McConnell. “It is in process just now, but not completed yet,” he says. The initial extended twin operations (ETOPS) clearance also has not yet been published by EASA, and McConnell believes it may take several more weeks. He says initial ETOPS will be “perfectly adequate” for the needs of the operators. The EASA certification document indicates there will be a 180-min. ETOPS approval and a separate one beyond that limit.
Airbus will return to lithium-ion-batteries—all A350s will be delivered with those batteries from 2016. As a consequence of the lithium-ion battery fires experienced on the Boeing 787, Airbus decided to use more conventional nickel-cadmium batteries temporarily to avoid schedule risk in case certification requirements changed. As it turns out, Airbus did not need to alter its original design. “We were fully aware of the risks inherent in the [battery] design,” Evrard said. “We have put measures in place to mitigate that to zero.”
The A350-900 has been certified by EASA for a maximum of 440 passengers, depending on the exit configuration. That will require at least eight cabin crew.
The maximum takeoff weight for the basic variant is 268 tons, although EASA has certified the aircraft for up to 275 tons, giving Airbus room for higher-weight versions later, even as part of the initial certification. While the A350 is available only in the basic 268-ton variant at this point, the A350-900 is about three tons heavier than initially planned. The aircraft is certified with a maximum operating altitude of 43,100 ft.
EASA has also determined that the A350-900 “is a variant of the A330/340 series aircraft” and, more precisely, is considered to be “a variant of the A330-200.” Pilots will be able to fly both the A330 and the A350 with the same type rating.