Airbus Sets A350 Flight Date as Boeing Rivalry Sharpens

Airbus SAS’s new A350 plane is scheduled to perform its maiden flight in two days’ time, as the European manufacturer seeks to gain a larger slice of the lucrative wide-body market still dominated by Boeing Co.

The A350’s first take-off from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, southwest France, will occur at 10 a.m. on June 14, “based on current visibility of the program,” the manufacturer said yesterday. The flight test teams are carrying out final checks on the aircraft before giving the final go-ahead.

A first flight would come days before the Paris Air Show, the most coveted industry event of the year and a regular place of showdowns between Airbus and Boeing as they angle for orders. Airbus has spent 11 billion euros ($14 billion) developing the A350, the company’s most advanced airliner yet, with composite materials and swept wings to rival Boeing’s wide-body jets.

“It’s a great coup de theatre,” said Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners in London, who has followed the industry for 30 years. “It’s bound to be good for sentiment and for internal morale. It’s just a step on the way but an important milestone nonetheless.”

European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., the parent company of Airbus, advanced as much as 1.1 euros, or 2.5 percent, to 43.4 euros, and traded at 43.39 at 1:13 p.m. in Paris. The stock has gained 48 percent this year, while Boeing has advanced 35 percent.

Paris Limelight

The flight will kick off 12 months of tests required for certification. While a first flight this week would show Airbus has improved its timing from previous programs, manufacturers often encounter complex issues even after a maiden voyage. Boeing’s Dreamliner entered service more than three years late, and Airbus’s A380 double-decker also suffered delays.

Getting its A350 airborne will help Airbus grab the spotlight as Boeing seeks to use the Paris expo to build interest in an updated 777, the Chicago-based company’s largest twin-engine jet, and revitalize the 787 program. That plane was grounded for three months earlier this year amid battery flaws.

The long-range A350 is designed to take on both Boeing models, with the 314-seat A350-900 -- the first to fly -- and the smaller A350-800 competing with the 787 and 777-200, and the A350-1000, seating 350, challenging the 777-300ER.

Steady Ascend

The A350 is more critical to the future success of Airbus than is the A380. The superjumbo has garnered 262 orders since the plane first went on offer in 2000. By comparison, the A350 has already racked up 613 orders even before first flight.

The first flight, which typically lasts several hours, will kick off 2,500 hours of airborne tests. The initial crew will include two pilots and four engineers in a plane packed with computer equipment to monitor performance and gather data.

The aircraft will be flown off the runaway at Toulouse/Blagnac airport, where Airbus is based, with the flight-control computers disconnected, in what is known as “direct law,” to allow pilots full handling of the aircraft.

The plane will initially ascend to about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters), traveling at a speed of about 200 nautical miles an hour, A350 project test pilot Frank Chapman said last week.

Once the crew is satisfied with the performance, test pilots will retract the landing gear, and subsequently increase the speed to test the response of the aircraft. All six crew will carry parachutes in the event of emergency, with rungs to move from the cockpit toward an exit hatch in the cargo area.

Airbus’s last test flight for a commercial airliner took place in 2005, for the A380, and the company tested its A400M at the end of 2009 in Seville in southern Spain. The first production A400M will go to the French armed forces in coming weeks.

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