Industry officials say Airbus plans to make a major announcement regarding the A350 first-flight schedule at the end of October.
The first A350-900 is destined for Qatar Airways. The airline has 40 -900s, 20 -1000s and 20 -800s on firm order. Qatar did not reply to email requests for comment on the matter. Emirates Airline President Tim Clark says he is not aware that Airbus is splitting initial production and says, “but no doubt they will be in touch.” Emirates has ordered 50 A350-900s and 20 -1000s.
The batching approach is one way to try to protect the schedule for first flight and early deliveries from further impact of the changes needed. Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier, though, has been very vocal in the past that product maturity comes before schedule and that Airbus would rather delay the next step in the assembly process than have to deal with incomplete “traveled” work at a facility that is not prepared to deal with it. These comments do not rule out later block changes, such as the move from Batch 2 to 3, however.
“It sounds like [the Boeing] 787, 747-8 and [Lockheed Martin] F-35 to me,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, referring to programs that had to incorporate late design changes during production ramp-up. “If you are missing important milestones, you get beaten up by the financial markets or your customers. . . . You want to meet time guarantees more than performance guarantees.”
Introducing upgrades later in production while keeping the schedule intact “is more of a problem in the long term,” Aboulafia asserts. One of the major issues of putting risks on balance sheets is the question of residual values, which become relevant when an operator plans to sell an early-batch A350. The approach is also very expensive, both for Airbus and its suppliers.
Details of Airbus's planned A350 production ramp-up are meanwhile emerging. Industry officials say the manufacturer plans to mate the fuselages and wings of four aircraft in 2012. It aims to do the mating for 12 aircraft in 2013, 24 in 2014 and 42 in 2015. Those numbers do not represent how many aircraft will be delivered in a particular year—the first A350 is not due for delivery until the second half of 2014. But it is an indication of the kind of production growth that is foreseen. Airbus declined to comment on the figures.
The production plan indicates that neither Airbus nor its suppliers have much time to build what are in some ways three different aircraft. “Nobody has the resources that are needed, neither Airbus nor the supply chain,” says the CEO of one European aerospace company. “There is going to be a fundamental cabin rework from Batch 2 to 3, plus the supply chain is ramping up development work for the A350-1000.” MSN17 is likely to be in final assembly by the end of 2013 or early 2014.
The CEO of an important Airbus supplier delivering a variety of parts says the batching “hurts us tremendously. We have to go through a new development process with each change,” which puts serious strain on his company's engineering resources and finances. He is also concerned that the planned steps are not the end of the story, since flight-testing could force more design amendments later. “But we need to have as few batches as possible,” he notes.
There are differing views about what has caused the problem and how serious it is. One industry executive says decisions on crucial changes and detailed design were made too late to be introduced with the initial aircraft. “They have missed the slot,” he says. In light of the detailed requirements that have been communicated to suppliers in the past few weeks, the aim of the whole initiative appears to be clear to him: “Getting down weight and cost.”
Component weight is to be reduced by up to 5% in some cases, but there seems to be a wide range of targets depending on the part.