October 23, 2012
Airbus is trying to reassure suppliers and customers that its A350XWB remains on track for first flight in the summer of 2013. The aircraft manufacturer officially opened the A350 final assembly line on Tuesday alongside a two-day supplier conference. “Our message is: the program is on plan and the upcoming major milestones will be on plan, too,” Airbus Chief Operating Officer Guenther Butschek said.
Two issues surrounding the program had been noticed with concerns amongst suppliers: Airbus’ decision to introduce weight improvements and changes in several batches, which leads to extra work and some performance shortfalls for early models, and the recent wing drilling troubles that have led to some delays for later aircraft, although not the MSN1. A350 program chief Didier Evrard told suppliers that introducing the aircraft in batches was a normal process.
Airbus has attached the wings to the first A350 fuselage, MSN5000, which will be used as the fatigue test aircraft. The aircraft is currently placed in one of the two stations (40) that are dedicated to wing-body-joining work. Adjacent to it, the fuselage of MSN1 is at station 50. One of the wings for MSN1 has arrived and is in the final assembly hangar next to the fuselage. The other wing is expected to arrive by the end of October.
According to Evrard, Airbus has built a total of five wings using a manual process after it has turned out that software glitches in the automatic process were causing delays. Those wings were intended for MSN5000 and MSN1. A fifth wing is currently at IABG to perform initial load testing ahead of the actual fatigue tests that will happen using MSN5000 in Toulouse. Evrard says the software issues caused initial automatic drilling to take around 2-3 months per wing, when it was supposed to have lasted only one month. But for MSN3, the next aircraft in the assembly process, the automatic drilling process is “back on target” and Airbus has already progressively reduced the manual work.
Evrard also points out that at least the initial two flight test aircraft will be kept at Airbus and no decision has been made whether to keep MSN2 and MSN4, the subsequent aircraft. Airbus plans to assemble two aircraft this year and start producing a third before the end of the year. In the second half of 2013, the manufacturer is aiming for a production rate of one aircraft per month. “Ramping up production will be crucial,” Evrard says.
Airbus is understood to roll out the first A350 (MSN1) in April, the company has not specified in detail when the aircraft will make its first flight, other than saying it expects to reach that milestone next summer.
Work is progressing on a second assembly hall that will allow Airbus to increase production rates from 2014. Initial assembly is performed in one hall that includes four stations, three of which are duplicated. Once the additional building is completed, station 30 (for systems testing and cabin installation) will move over. A total of four station 30s will be available.
Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier indicates that Airbus might raise production of the A350-1000, the largest of the three planned A350 versions. “We expected around 40-50 aircraft per year, but we will be much better than that.” If that decision was made, Airbus would have to also invest more into dedicated A350-1000 facilities. Bregier insists that Airbus will build all three planned versions, even though he concedes that customers have “less appetite for the -800”, the smallest variant. “The market will slightly move to bigger aircraft. But we are observing that trend with other models, too.”
Germany’s decision to withhold payment of around €500 million in refundable loans will not cause any delays and put the program at risk, Bregier says. However, getting the government-backed financing would be a way for Airbus to rule out risk, even if it comes at higher than usual interest rates. Germany is the only one of the Airbus countries (including France, U.K. and Spain) that has not gone ahead with the support yet. The government wants further assurances about the German workshare in the A350 and has concerns that German sites might lose out in the long term.