First look at the Airbus A350 XWB. What's all the fuss about?

First look at the Airbus A350 XWB. What's all the fuss about?

Images, the specs and the troubled history of Airbus' super lightweight plane. Can it take on Boeing and importantly, what does it mean for travelers?
Airbus A350
The vertical tail plane of the first A350 XWB that will fly, fresh out of the paint hall in Toulouse, France.

Airbus recently opened the final assembly line for its A350 XWB family of aircraft, giving aviation fanatics a closer look at the family of super efficient passenger planes designed to go head-to-head against rival Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and 777s. 

But what exactly is this plane going to offer travelers? And why did it take Airbus so long to get it right?   

First, the specs. 

The XWB in the name means “wide bodied aircraft.” There are three members in the 350 family: the A350-800, the A350-900 and the A350-1000, which seat 270, 314 and 350 passengers, respectively, in three-class seating. 

To date, Airbus says it has received 558 firm orders from 34 customers; 118 are for the A350-800, 352 for the A350-900 and 88 for the A350-1000. Qatar Air will become the first operator of the A350 in the second half of 2014.

The largest model of the A350 family is the A350-1000. The smallest, the 60.54-meter A350-800, is priced at US$245.5 million and seats 270. The smallest in the family, the 60.54-meter A350-800, is priced at US$245.5 million, while the popular mid-sized A350-900, 66.89 meters in length, is $277.7 million. 

The largest of the three lightweight carbon-composite aircraft, the A350-1000, is 73.88 meters long and has a range of approximately 8,400 nautical miles, or 15,600 kilometers. The catalog price is US$320.6 million and Airbus says this model is in high demand, with no slots available until 2018. 

It will offer airlines a nine-abreast configuration in economy and eight-abreast in premium economy, while 10-abreast seating is available for high-density layouts, which would allow the airline to accommodate up to 440 passengers in high-density -- a.k.a. cramped -- three-class seating.   

On the technical side, the big appeal for airlines is that over 70 percent of the A350 XWB’s airframe is made from advanced materials that combine composites (53 percent), titanium and advanced aluminum alloys. 

"A350 in its technology is kind of like a smaller A380,” says Bob Lange, Airbus VP of marketing.

“A lot of the technology we’re putting into the A350 we pioneered on the A380 first. The big difference is that we’re using a lot more carbon composite material in the A350 than we are in the A380. It’s a steady evolution rather than revolution. It’s focused on efficiency."

The A350 is the first Airbus passenger jet to use both fuselage and wing structures made primarily of carbon fiber-reinforced polymer, resulting in lower fuel burn as well as easier maintenance. This is where the comparison to the 787 Dreamliner becomes apt.  

The 787, one of the most advanced launches into the airline industry in recent years, is made up of 50 percent composites and uses 20 percent less fuel than other aircraft in the same category. It also has bigger, dimmable windows and roomier cabins than its predecessors.

The A350's advanced technologies will give airlines up to 25 percent better fuel efficiency and operating costs against today’s aircraft of the same size, says Airbus.  

Also of note are the airplane's intriguing looking "winglets" -- wing extensions that play a role in improving the aircraft's efficiency by increasing the aspect ratio of a wing and thus the lift generated at the wingtip. 

More on CNN: Boeing 747-8 vs. Airbus A380 -- the airline giants face off

For travelers

Airbus A350A graphic rendering of the A350 suited up in Singapore Airline's livery. The Asian carrier recently added 20 more A350 XWB jetliners to its order.

With the Airbus A350 being touted as a more efficient plane, many travelers might be hoping airlines will pass those savings onto customers. 

Aviation journalist David Kaminski-Morrow, air transport editor of Flightglobal.com, acknowledges that fuel efficiency is the main feature driving airline interest in the A350, "but while that might reduce the airlines’ cost margins, it’s hard to say how much of that saving will ultimately be passed to the passenger in the form of lower fares, given the elevated expenditure on fuel."

In terms of the inflight experience, Airbus promises the A350 XWB’s wide fuselage cross-section will offer passengers an optimum travel experience in all classes of service.

"Passengers will enjoy more headroom, wider panoramic windows and larger overhead storage space," says the company.

The cabin cross-section is 220 inches from armrest to armrest, so the jetliner’s cabin does provide the widest seats in its category, being five inches larger than its nearest competitor. Kaminski-Morrow doesn't think the difference in fuselage width compared with the Boeing 787 is very much.

"It’s debatable whether economy-class passengers will notice a marginally wider seat," he says. "The modern engines may appear quieter, something which passengers on the current A380 have tended to notice."

He also adds passengers expecting a groundbreaking plane with futuristic bells and whistles will likely be disappointed. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing, given airlines' tendency to ding fliers extra for new experiences.

“When the A380 came in to service, incidentally, airlines were actually able to charge passengers higher fares for the novelty of flying on the new aircraft, but I suspect this won’t be repeated –- at least not to the same extent -– on the A350 because it’s a more conventional design.”

Airbus vs. Boeing

Airbus A350Inside the A350 assembly plant in Toulouse, southern France, Airbus is now putting together the first flyable A350.


Airbus’ decision to develop a single aircraft family to challenge both the 787 and the larger 777 was a risky move, say aviation analysts.

“That’s a tall order for a single design, and Airbus has particularly struggled with adapting the A350’s largest version (the -1000) to compete with the 777 –- a very efficient, high-capacity aircraft.” says Kaminski-Morrow.

“Airbus has already had to rethink the design of the A350-1000, which has resulted in a delay in its entry into airline service, but it has also forced Boeing to consider modernizing the 777 in order to stay ahead of the competition.”

Indeed, the pressure is now on Boeing to speed up development of its 777 replacement, but the United States company isn't releasing many details on the revamped aircraft, for now dubbed the 777X.

Airbus A350Major components and sections of the A350 XWB are manufactured at Airbus facilities in Germany, Spain, France and the United Kingdom, then shipped to the final assembly line in Toulouse, France."Boeing is developing options to improve on the 777's popularity by working with our customers on their requirements and we feel very comfortable with where we are in that process," says Wilson Chow of Boeing International's communications department.

"We continue to invest all the necessary time and resources to ensure we produce a significantly superior airplane when our customers require it."

Chow points out that three of the four A350-1000 customers have even placed incremental orders for the 777.

"These are clear signs that our customers understand the value the 777 provides relative to our competitor," he says.

"The 777 has a record of continuous improvements. It will benefit from years of additional refinements based on customer input before the A350-1000 is scheduled to enter service."

Airbus interprets those orders somewhat differently, chalking it up to the fact their A350-1000 is just too popular.

"We’re ahead of the game with the A350-1000, slots aren’t available before 2018 and people want planes earlier and this is why we are seeing some orders for the 777," says a communications representative for Airbus.

As for the Dreamliner 787, Boeing currently has 838 orders from 58 customers. To date, they’ve delivered 33 787s to seven customers.

More on CNN: Dreamliner makes U.S. debut

No easy ride

Airbus A350The wing-span on all models of the A350 family is 64.75 meters.


Though it would appear Airbus now has an advantage over Boeing in the race to develop lightweight mid-sized aircraft, getting its A350 program in line with airlines’ expectations was not without embarrassment or expense.

Aviation followers have been ogling developments with a mixture of fascination and disbelief since the A350's initial launch in 2007. 

“Airbus’s initial A350 design wasn’t an entirely new aircraft, but a knee-jerk reaction to the 787,” explains Kaminski-Morrow.

“The company, which was hip-deep in sorting out A380 development, simply hadn’t foreseen the huge pent-up demand for a more efficient 250-seat airliner, and tried to take the easy way out by offering a re-engined version of its A330." 

While the A330 is incredibly popular, the airlines were more interested in the potential efficiency offered by a clean-sheet design, he adds. 

Being publicly lambasted by some of its largest customers –- one exec called it a band-aid reaction to the 787 Dreamliner, the CEO of Singapore Air said the plane just didn’t go far enough –- the pressure was on for Airbus to come up with a plane that would genuinely advance the global aviation scene.

And even earlier this year there were cancellations. Abu Dhabi-based airline Etihad Airways axed seven orders for A350-1000s, saying they still weren’t happy with the design, criticizing its range, performance and fuel burn.

"Airbus belatedly woke up and countered with a completely new version of the A350, and managed to tap into the market,” says Kaminski-Morrow. 

Following up on the preliminary structural and systems tests on an assembled but grounded aircraft, Airbus is now assembling its first flyable A350, which it expects to start testing next year.

Factory pics

Airbus A350Optimised for a fast cruise speed of Mach 0.85, the A350 XWB’s wings enhance the jetliner’s overall operational effectiveness and improve its range, says Airbus.

Airbus A350Government officials and media at the A350 final assembly line in Toulouse last month. Airbus A350"It starts really upstream," says Bob Lange, Airbus VP of marketing, of the aircraft development process. "It’s not just structural. We test all the systems, we have all the aircraft control systems and surfaces laid out in a hanger here [in Toulouse] connected to a flight simulator and that testing starts a couple of years before the first flight."
Airbus A350The cockpit of the A350 XWB, under assembly at the plant in Toulouse, southern France. Airbus expects to begin test flights in 2013. Airbus A350Over 70 percent of the A350 XWB’s airframe is made from advanced materials that combine composites, titanium and advanced aluminium alloys.

 

Karla is a digital producer with CNN Travel based in Bangkok, Thailand. 

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