Manufacturers Ian Goold / London
A350 schedule could slip even further, claims US analyst
US investment-advice consultancy Bernstein Research believes that the new Airbus A350 twin-aisle twinjet may be delayed beyond the manufacturer’s latest schedule, issued in November.
The European manufacturer revised its production timetable for the A350 XWB (an abbreviation of “extra-wide body”) following delays in sub-assembly deliveries from suppliers in Europe and the USA, pushing the start of final assembly back from late 2011 to early 2012.
The scheduled first-flight date for the initial A350-900 variant has slipped from late 2012 to 2013’s first quarter, with entry into service (EIS) with launch customer Qatar Airways consequently delayed by six months, to the first half of 2014. Similarly, Bernstein has revised its own, more pessimistic, prediction of A350-900 EIS by some six months to mid-2015, having previously predicted delivery of eight A350s in 2014 and 50 in 2015.
The late delivery of sub-assemblies has been caused, at least partly, by financing difficulties experienced by some suppliers. Hans-Peter Ring, chief financial officer of Airbus parent EADS, attributes the delay to funding problems.
“All suppliers are in big difficulties [and] the whole system is under pressure,” Ring says. The revised production schedule was announced on the same day as EADS’s third-quarter financial results, and led to the Airbus parent taking a charge of 200 million Euros (about US$270 million) on its balance sheet.
At November’s Dubai Airshow, Airbus Chief Operating Officer (Customers) John Leahy said the manufacturer expected no cancellations from Middle East operators, despite widely reported comments from Dubai-based Emirates and Qatar Airways.
Airbus’s top salesman also sought to underplay the timetable revision. “I don’t see any cancellations taking place as a result of the delay … and certainly not for a delay of a couple of months to the programme,” Leahy told Gulf News.
The new A350 schedule gives Airbus and engine-supplier Rolls-Royce more time to confirm the Trent XWB powerplant’s performance. The initial unit has been installed on A380 test aircraft MSN 1 for airborne tests previously set to begin 12 months before the A350’s original first-flight date. As of early November, neither company would reveal the latest timetable.
Airbus priorities now are to establish maturity of principal components and sub-assemblies arriving for final assembly in Toulouse in southwest France. The manufacturer plans to start assembling an initial static-test article, called ES, in early 2012.
“The programme is advancing [with] manufacturing and pre-assembly of the A350-900 progressing across all pre-final-assembly (pre-FAL) sites,” says Airbus. Nevertheless, Ring has revealed that Airbus representatives have been parachuted in to assist suppliers “where necessary”.
“Lessons learned from previous programmes [will be] applied for the next [final-assembly] phase,” says Airbus Executive Vice-President and A350 Programme Head Didier Evrard. He identifies four “maturity enablers” required as the first airframe is assembled: supply-chain and factory readiness, manageable out-of-sequence work, and quality of assembly and installation drawings. “We need to control out-of-sequence work, or we will lose efficiency. We cannot allow too much work to ‘travel’,” he says.
Airbus planned to have begun systems installation in the static-test airframe by the end of 2011, with systems integration tests continuing as final assembly takes place. In early November, the first airframe was reaching the end of pre-final assembly, which had been delayed by late delivery of some composites and detailed parts. “It is our top priority to reach the highest levels of part-readiness before aircraft sections enter final assembly,” Evrard says.
Sub-assemblies still undelivered in November were primarily composite fuselage skin-panels from US-based Spirit AeroSystems. In October, Spirit had said it was “work[ing] with Airbus to meet all their requirements and delivery schedules for the pre-final assembly phase”.
Assembly of the first composite wings for the aircraft is underway at Airbus’s new North Factory in Broughton, UK, following pre-assembly of the wings’ fixed leading and trailing edges, ribs, and upper and lower ‘covers’ (skin panels). Most of the wing is made from lightweight carbon-fibre composite material, including the forward and rear spars, stringers, and covers.
Meanwhile, the first A350-900 forward fuselage section has been shipped by structures supplier Premium Aerotec to Hamburg, where systems are being installed before delivery to Toulouse for final assembly. The wing spars and trailing edges are being supplied by UK aerostructures manufacturer GKN Aerospace, whose technical director, Richard Oldfield, has acknowledged the challenge faced as the contractor prepares to increase production, with about a dozen aircraft planned for completion in 2012.
As Airbus begins to establish series production, the initial static-test airframe will be followed by the first two flight-test A350s – MSN001 and MSN003. Then comes the fatigue-test specimen (actually three large assemblies: EF1, EF2 and EF3) and MSN004, the cabin-interior test aircraft.
With Emirates, Finnair, Qatar Airways, TAP Air Portugal, and North American operators United Airlines, and US Airways, Airbus has opened an “Airline Office” to establish operational expertise. Evrard says it will validate the aircraft maintenance manual, ground-support equipment tools, minimum mandatory equipment lists, and other things.