If 2013 was the year of two very important first flights, 2014 will have to be an important year of execution: Airbus has committed to delivering the first A350-900, Boeing will hand over the first stretched 787-9, and the first Bombardier CS100 is still officially due for entry into service.
Airbus is facing a crucial 12 months as it enters the second half of the A350-900 flight-test program. Two aircraft, MSN1 and MSN3, are currently performing the tests, which Airbus says have been mostly successful so far. Following an initial phase of handling tests, Airbus has continuously moved into the part of the campaign that is addressing a long list of items required for certification. Three more aircraft are to join the flight-test program—MSN2, MSN4 and MSN5—the first two in February and the last in May. Airbus expects the aircraft to receive its type certificate at the end of August or in early September, a little more than 14 months after first flight. Qatar Airways will then take delivery of the first aircraft in the fourth quarter.
Airbus currently holds 814 firm orders for the A350, the bulk of which (549) are for the baseline A350-900. Meanwhile, Airbus is shifting engineering resources to the stretched A350-1000, due to enter service in 2017. There are 186 firm orders for the -1000, which has seen a notable pick-up in demand. Airbus has pushed back entry into service of the -1000 by almost two years to allow more time for Rolls-Royce to upgrade the engines as demanded by key customers, mainly Persian Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.
The future of the smallest version, the A350-800, appears to still hang in the balance. Airbus is officially committed to building the aircraft—the backlog has shrunk to 79 units—but the manufacturer is now hearing from customers that it should seriously consider stretching it to counter the threat posed by the newly launched Boeing 777X. While Airbus is unlikely to make a formal decision next year, 2014 will be a crucial time to prepare for that step.
Airbus is proud that its A330 has been selling so well in recent years, and in fact has outsold the 787 since its launch. But in spite of the launch of the 242-ton version that increased its range, and a regional variant optimized for shorter-haul efficiency, there are indications that the A330 boom may not continue. From January to November 2013, Airbus sold just 48 of the type, compared to the 164 Boeing garnered for the 787.
If that trend continues, Airbus may not only face serious questions about the future of the A350-800, but may also have to take a close look at what it could do do refresh the A330 further. Some of its customers, most notably Air Asia X, have been asking for a reengined version. Since the market success of the A320neo, the concept has gained traction to the extent that Emirates now wants the A380 to be re-engined; so it is clearly an option for the A330, although Airbus has been trying to play down that idea so far.
The formal launch of the 777X at the Dubai Airshow in November marked a watershed for Boeing, which moves from a multi-year period of planning into an intense phase of program execution. The new-generation long-range twin family is the final piece of a 12-year product development plan covering the 150- to 450-plus-seat range with four major models and nine variants.