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Airbus A350 Program Challenged as Wing Assembly Slips One Month

Airbus SAS’s A350 assembly hit a snag as the manufacturer grapples with the wing production, causing a monthlong delay delivering the structure for a program that Airbus cautioned has no margin to slip further.

The wing for the first flying A350 will arrive at Airbus’s headquarters in Toulouse in France in October instead of September, Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier said today at the Farnborough air show near London. Bregier said he recently inspected the wing factory in Broughton in the U.K., and that the most critical phase of assembly “is behind us.”

“For the first prototype you need to be over-cautious,” Bregier told journalists at the expo. “We will see how it develops and then we will have more confidence on first flight. I will never exclude a slight adaptation on the program.”

The A350 is Airbus’s attempt to gain a bigger slice of the long-range airliner market, a segment now dominated by Boeing Co. and its popular 777. Airbus was about three years late on its last major program, the A380 double-decker jumbo, and Bregier said the company has learned from that experience as well as delays on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and has “no intention” of repeating the same mistakes.

The main challenge on the A350 wings stems from drilling holes needed to attach the component to the so-called center wing box. Both parts are made of light-weight composite materials instead aluminum, making the drilling process more complex. The structure of the A350 is about 50 percent composite materials, compared with 25 percent on the A380.

Training Workers

Airbus is spending more time familiarizing workers on the assembly line with the new materials. Workers who drill holes for rivets, even those with decades of experience, are spending three weeks in training on how to put holes into composites, which are harder and less forgiving than traditional metal.

The company is aiming for first flight of an A350 in the middle of 2013, with first delivery of an A350-900 -- the mid-sized variant -- to Qatar Airways Ltd. a year later. Five aircraft will be involved in flight testing. The Rolls-Royce Plc Trent XWB engine powering the A350 is already flying on an A380 test superjumbo.

“The biggest lessons we can draw from the past is that we need to move from one step to the other on these big programs without rushing,” Bregier said.

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