Airbus says A350 risk minimized as first flight looms
TOULOUSE, France (Reuters) - European planemaker Airbus has vowed to avoid the problems which led to the grounding of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner as the clock ticks towards a maiden flight seen as barely one week away.
Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier said Airbus had focused on reducing technical risk in its costliest ever development project, drawing an implicit contrast with battery problems that led to the 787's three-month grounding earlier this year.
"This aircraft is mature with limited technology risks ... and I have no appetite at all to launch a grounded aircraft," Bregier said in a major annual briefing at Toulouse, France.
The A350 looks on course to fly by the end of next week but preparations could be overshadowed by a possible air traffic controllers' strike. Several French unions have warned of possible strikes from the middle of next week, authorities said.
Airbus EAD.PA can operate from its Toulouse headquarters without public controllers, but a strike could hamper plans to fly in a large media and VIP contingent for the first maiden sortie of a new Airbus jet since the A380 superjumbo in 2005.
Airbus declined to elaborate on the date of the first flight, which depends on a final decision from test crew once they have completed a series of ground trials.
Weather is also a factor amid 7-day forecasts of scattered thunderstorms. Although the aircraft, 53-percent built from carbon-fiber, is designed to withstand lightning strikes, that is something pilots will want to avoid on day one.
"For the first flights we play it very conservatively," said Frank Chapman, an Airbus experimental test pilot.
Due to enter service next year, the A350 was designed to compete at first with the 787 Dreamliner, setting up a duel between mid-sized long-haul jets. A larger version due in 2017 will aim to capture demand from the larger 365-seat 777 too.
Boeing (BA.N) has already anticipated this by pre-marketing a revamped version of its mini-jumbo dubbed the 777X.
The move has sparked a battle for the lucrative 350-400 seat market that is likely to dominate the June 17-23 Paris Airshow, where the newly airborne A350 could make a symbolic flypast.
Boeing officials say two proposed models of 777X, seating 350 to 406 people, will burn less fuel per seat than the A350-1000 thanks to advanced new wings and engines.
Airbus insists the A350-1000, due to enter service in 2017, will hold its own in a corner of the wide-body market estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars over two decades.
The latest salvos come as both planemakers position for a recovery of economic growth following the financial crisis.
Despite high orders for latest fuel-saving models, last year Airbus suspended plans to go beyond a targeted output level of 42 a month for A320 medium-haul jets, which it has now reached.
Now Airbus and rival Boeing are once again discussing the prospect of increasing output to whittle down large backlogs after adopting a wait-and-see attitude during the downturn.
"We have traffic doubling every 15 years and Asian markets are showing tremendous growth," said Kiran Rao, executive vice president for strategy and marketing at Airbus.
Demand is especially strong for revamped fuel-saving medium-haul models like the A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX.
"After we introduce the A320neo we could easily imagine going to rates like 44 per month, and in fact as we go towards the end of the decade, 50 a month," said Tom Williams, executive vice-president of programs at Airbus, in a media briefing.
"We don't need to make decisions on these things today. We want a sustainable industrial model," he added.
Airbus sales chief John Leahy told Reuters this week it was studying an increase once the A320neo enters the market in 2015.
Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney told investors last month there was "upward bias" in production of 737 and 787 jets.
EADS unit Airbus is piping Boeing in the order race so far this year after losing the top spot in 2012.
It said on Thursday it had sold 517 aircraft in the first five months, just ahead of Boeing's latest tally of 498.
Both companies are expected to unveil orders at the June 17-23 air show at Le Bourget outside the French capital.
Both have hit headwinds with their largest four-engined models, however. Airbus said it was confident a lull in sales of the A380, the world's largest jetliner, would pick up as economic recovery puts pressure on crowded hubs.
It has begun offering a beefed-up version able to carry 558 people in three classes, instead of the current 525.
Sales chief John Leahy told Reuters this week that Airbus could unveil an order for the A380 at the Paris Airshow.
Boeing contends the double-decker A380 is too large for most airlines, many of which prefer more flights with smaller jets.
(Editing by Mark Potter)
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