Airbus is currently assembling the third A350 and plans to slowly ramp up production. The first aircraft is to make its maiden flight this summer; an exact date has not been announced but rollout is tentatively planned for April. If everything goes to plan, the first A350-900 will be delivered in the second half of 2014, following certification.
For the A350, 2013 will also be a crucial year for suppliers. Airbus has so far managed to limit delays to a few months, despite early production problems particularly in wing assembly. But some high-risk work has yet to be finished. Scrambling to stay on schedule, Airbus introduced weight-saving design changes to the A350 in batches. The changes lead to extra design and manufacturing work for suppliers, and sources in the supply chain have warned they could face bottlenecks.
As Airbus wrestles with getting the -900 certified and into service next year, work on the revised A350-1000 is intensifying. Deliveries were planned for 2015, but Airbus extended the schedule by two years to allow time for development of higher-thrust Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines that key customers like Emirates and Qatar Airways have requested. Some customers are still not entirely happy, and debate centers on how much range future long-haul aircraft should offer. Persian Gulf area carriers need extreme ranges to serve destinations such as the U.S. West Coast. With orders for only 88 aircraft by mid-November, the -1000 is still a slow-seller.
At the same time, Airbus is faced with a decision on whether—and when—the smallest version of the A350 family, the -800, needs to be built. The aircraft is seen as the least attractive variant. Airbus has 118 firm orders for the -800, but some customers have recently opted to move to the larger -900. That trend coincides with Airbus's interests, as it could take pressure off the development schedule, allowing the manufacturer to focus on the -900 and -1000.
Airbus has completed the ramp-up to 42 aircraft a month for the A320 family. The company has never produced as many narrowbodies before and held off from increasing output to 44 mainly because of concerns that suppliers couldn't handle the workload.
Any further increase in production will now likely come only after the introduction of the A320NEO in 2015 and the transition of production to the new model. There are differing views on how difficult it will be for Airbus to sustain the 42-per-month rate during the transition; some observers expect demand to dip just ahead of the NEO introduction. Others argue it is only lessors and financiers that have reason to be concerned about residual values. But those concerns could be an issue not only for late-production A320 classics, but also longer term for NEOs, depending on the length of the production run.
More than five years after its entry into service, the A380 is also still a major drag on Airbus resources. Demand has been slowing and the program remains highly reliant on huge orders from its single largest customer. Of the 257 aircraft on firm order so far, 90 (or more than a third of the backlog) are for Emirates. Airbus had targeted 30 orders in 2012, but with only one follow-on sale to Singapore Airlines and a new order for four from Transaero, the company looked unlikely to get anywhere near the target as the year drew to a close.
Airbus also hopes design changes to the A380 wing can be certified before the year-end. Airlines continue to deal with ongoing repairs and checks for wing cracks in certain areas, grounding parts of the fleet and substantially impacting operations. Because a new production-standard wing will not be available sooner, there is already an impact on 2013 deliveries; these will likely not reach a previous target of around 30. Qatar Airways has stated it will only accept aircraft that have design changes incorporated that supersede the permanent fix proposed by Airbus for the current wing design.
Additional costs for repairs, fix development and customer compensation are making the business case for the A380 even more precarious. Airbus has claimed it will break even on the program in 2015. But that calculation only includes the recurring costs of production. What is not taken into account are the development costs—well in excess of €10 billion, plus interest—that must be paid back eventually.