Airbus Group NV let its new A350 play hooky for a few days from rigorous flight testing to show off the plane at an international air show, as it seeks to build on Asian orders for a model that takes on Boeing Co.’s Dreamliner and 777 models.
The plane, set to begin commercial service with Qatar Airways Ltd. in the fourth quarter of this year, will fly tomorrow and the following day before crowds at the Singapore Air Show. It will also be on static display as successful flight trials so far have earned it a few days off, said Fernando Alonso, senior vice president for flight and integration tests.
The twin-aisle A350’s appearance at Singapore is evidence that flight checks have advanced enough for Airbus to take the jet out of testing briefly. The aircraft, about half made from carbon fiber composites, has won 814 orders from 39 customers including Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Japan Airlines Co. The region accounts for 30 percent of the aircraft’s total sales.
“It’s been quite remarkable and way beyond our expectations,” Alonso told journalists at Changi airport in Singapore where the plane landed Feb. 8 after stopping in Doha to visit its first customer. “We used to fly 50 to 55 hours a month” on former flight tests programs, he said. “On the A350 we’ve been routinely flying 100 hours a month, because of the extremely good preparation” done in advance of flights.
Airbus first flew the jet on June 14 and conducted a fly-by days later at the Paris Air Show, the industry’s highest-profile gathering. The plane at the Singapore show is one of the two aircraft already undergoing flight tests, and is filled with equipment for monitoring the performance.
The two test planes so far have logged 1,000 test hours, out of a total of about 2,500 hours required ahead of certification.
The A350 cabin was opened for inspection to journalists and some visitors today, packed with test equipment and flight control displays that record and track as many as 600,000 parameters. Inside the plane were meters of cables, with those involved in flight tests wrapped in bright orange bundling.
The model has very basic seating for about 50 people used usually by technicians, mechanics and support staff during tests. The first test plane to have a properly equipped cabin for passengers will be ready in April.
The A350 has also been to Bolivia, in Latin America, to test flying in high altitudes and to Northern Canada to check its capacity to withstand cold temperatures, flying at minus 28 degrees centigrade, Alonso said.
Airbus has also began letting airline pilots fly the plane. Yesterday Alonso’s team shared the cockpit with two Singapore Air pilots, giving them controls after half hour lessons, and in Doha, two Qatar pilots also took the controls, he said.
Airbus has been hoping to get clearance from regulatory authorities in the U.S. and Europe to have airlines fly the twin-engine plane wherever they like without having to stay near land in the case of one engine cease working.
In industry parlance, it’s known as ETOPS, for extended-twin-operations. The Federal Aviation Administration in the U.S. and the European Aviation Safety Authority must decide whether twin-engine commercial planes need to stay within 90 minutes, 120-minutes, or 180 minutes of the nearest airport -- or whether the aircraft has shown sufficient reliability that it can fly beyond three hours from land.
Initially, European and U.S. authorities had agreed on required tests for giving unlimited ETOPS clearance. Recently the FAA wrote to Airbus, Alonso said today, saying that it had reconsidered and would impose stricter tests before allowing full ETOPS.
The harder line came after Boeing’s 787 model suffered difficulties with lithium batteries, Alonso said. The Dreamliner was grounded for more than three months last year following the melting of lithium-ion batteries on two of the planes.
For now, Airbus plans to stick with guidelines given by EASA, and once it has passed those tests, it will re-discuss the issues with the FAA, Alonso said. If the FAA did require stricter ETOPS it would affect only carriers based in the U.S. Two U.S. carriers have ordered the plane though earliest deliveries aren’t until 2017.
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