* Carbon-fibre jet "behaving well," chief pilot says
* Joins Boeing 787 in new generation of lightweight jets
* Competition expected to dominate Paris Airshow
By Tim Hepher and Jean Décotte
TOULOUSE, France, June 14 After the Dreamliner,
Europe's latest passenger jet, the Airbus A350, made its
maiden flight on Friday and its chief salesman, opening a new
front in a battle with U.S. rival Boeing Co, declared it
so quiet that airport residents won't even notice it.
The lightweight carbon-plastic jet flew over the Airbus
plant in Toulouse to salute production workers before wrapping
up a four-hour inaugural flight that Airbus officials said had
achieved more than expected.
Watched by 10,000 staff and spectators, the aircraft's
curled wingtips sliced into clouds above the factory in
southwestern France and flew over the Pyrenees.
The sortie caps eight years of designing and development
costing an estimated $15 billion.
Airbus's ebullient New York-born sales chief, John Leahy,
lost no time in talking up the plane's benefits moments after
its two Roll-Royce engines hoisted the A350 from the same
runway where the supersonic Concorde took its first
ground-shaking run 44 years ago.
"Did you hear how quiet it was? We are going to set new
standards ... People round airports won't even know we are
taking off," Leahy said.
It is a milestone for the EADS unit as it seeks to
catch Boeing's 787 Dreamliner in sales of a generation of
lightweight jets designed to save fuel and do less harm to the
Boeing was first off the mark with the use of revolutionary
carbon-composite materials and its Dreamliner has so far outsold
the A350, with sales reaching 833 aircraft to 57 customers.
With sales of 613 planes to 33 customers, Airbus hopes to
catch up and also mount a challenge to the U.S. manufacturer's
larger, metallic 777, thanks in part to the A350's low noise.
"READY TO FLY"
British test pilot Peter Chandler, who commanded a crew of
six pilots and test engineers wearing helmets and parachutes
over orange jumpsuits, was elated about the plane.
"It was ready to fly and it wanted to fly. It was clearly
much happier in the air," Chandler said.
French co-pilot Guy Magrin, a former air force pilot, took
the controls for the take-off at 10:01 local time (0801 GMT).
Competition for wide-bodied jets is expected to dominate
next week's Paris Airshow, where the A350 has its sights on
another fly-by when French President Francois Hollande visits
the event on Friday, if tests continue to go well.
"I am talking to airlines about placing orders in the very
new future. I think you may see some announcements very soon,"
sales chief Leahy told Reuters.
Airbus is finalizing orders from Singapore Airlines
, Kuwait Airways and Air France and hopes to
add a new customer at the June 17-23 show, analysts say.
Boeing sees a market worth $1 trillion for one category of
mid-sized long-haul passenger airplanes over the next 20 years
and the A350 and 787 are chasing the lion's share of that.
More expensive than other aircraft at about $300 million
apiece at list prices, the A350's business case relies on fuel
savings of some 25 percent compared with ordinary airliners.
But aerospace manufacturers are also under pressure to cut
emissions and noise to comply with tougher global regulations.
EDGE ON NOISE
Airbus and Boeing both claim the edge on noise levels, which
remain politically explosive at airports like London's Heathrow.
Airbus said the A350 is up to 16 decibels below
international requirements. Boeing said its 787 has a smaller
noise footprint than other widebody aircraft, and is equivalent
to the sounds of heavy traffic when standing at a roadside.
"We welcome any moves towards quieter planes, but let's not
run away with the idea that the A350 is a quiet plane. It is
simply less noisy than its predecessors," said John Stewart,
chair of a residents' group opposing the expansion of Heathrow.
The A350's maiden flight is the start of a 12 to 13 month
test programme that will include putting it through the harshest
possible conditions around the globe.
Airbus says it is on track to put the aircraft into service
with Qatar Airways in the second half of 2014, but the timetable
Project leader Didier Evrard, a former missiles boss
credited with preventing a repeat of the disarray on recent
Airbus programs, has a major job to produce four more test
aircraft and could not relax during the flight.
"I will still be nervous until it comes back. I'm an
engineer so I have to be connected to the ground and make sure
everything is fine," he told reporters.
Evrard said Airbus would soon add a customer in the United
States, where industry sources say United Airlines is
negotiating to expand an order for 25 jets.
Airbus initially dismissed new mid-sized aircraft like the
787 as it focused on building the world's largest airliner, the
A380 superjumbo, in the last decade.
But faced with burgeoning Dreamliner sales, it changed tack
and overhauled the design of the 270- to 350-seat A350 by
adopting similar composites technology in 2006.
To boost sales, Boeing is expected to soon confirm plans to
build a larger version of its Dreamliner. It is also overhauling
its 777 with new engines and wings.