As the first A350 was approaching first flight in late May, Airbus was already busy planning the next steps. In addition to the flight-test campaign, Evrard considers it to be “the biggest challenge to produce heads of versions for many customers in an industrial way.” Following the traumatic experience in customizing A380s for a variety of airlines in the early phase of production, a smooth ramp-up will depend on building the initial units efficiently and finding ways to quickly incorporate lessons learned in the process. As the A380 has shown, it can take many years to bring recurring costs below the level of revenues per aircraft.
Alongside the -900 flight-testing, Airbus continues work on the two other A350 versions. The -800 was officially scheduled to enter service in 2016, to be followed by the stretched -1000 in 2017, but that timing is no longer being publicized. While it is revealing many details of the development progress made with the -1000 derivative, Airbus does not have much to say about the -800, which no longer plays a significant role in company presentations. According to airline industry sources, Airbus has tried to persuade customers to move away from the -800 and switch to the larger -900 and -1000. The -800's backlog has shrunk to half its former size and now stands at 89 units.
Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier insists that the -800 will nevertheless be built, in part because not all of the -800 customers are willing to switch to other versions. Hawaiian Airlines says the stretched versions are too large for its requirements. But there is a strong likelihood that Airbus will lose more of the backlog: for example, Kingfisher Airlines ordered five aircraft but is no longer flying.
Observers therefore expect Airbus to officially continue the -800 program but to first develop and certify the -1000, which is in higher demand and appears to hold more strategic importance in Airbus's competition with the proposed Boeing 777-8X and -9X.
Given that the -9X will actually be larger than the A350-1000—fitting in the niche between the current largest medium-sized widebodies (777-300ER, 777-8X and A350-1000) and the A380—Airbus might have to look at a double stretch of the A350 in the medium term. Bregier does not rule out that possibility, but he cautions that it has also not been studied in any detail (see page 92).
Boeing has gone for this approach in the 787 program, with the 787-8 as the baseline. It is now being pressured by many airlines to launch the 787-10 in addition to the -9, which is scheduled to enter service in 2014, to provide an aircraft with more seats. But the double-stretch can be a complex undertaking if the resulting aircraft is not to suffer reduced range.
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