'Mini-jumbo' jet battle: Airbus A350 takes shape

Airbus is looking at increasing planned production for the largest member of its A350 family to power its next important struggle with Boeing for a lucrative corner of the jet market, two people familiar with the matter said.

The plans came as Airbus inaugurated its assembly factory for the A350 in Toulouse, southwest France, last week, which is being developed at an estimated cost of $US15 billion.

The lightweight carbon-composite aircraft is Airbus's answer to two categories of Boeing long-haul jet: the 787 Dreamliner, which pioneered the large-scale of fuel-saving materials, and the more traditional metallic but still popular 365-seat 777.

The largest variant, the 350-seat A350-1000, will allow Airbus to compete directly with the twin-engined 777 "mini-jumbo". The duel is shaping as the next major aviation battle, with sales of up to 2000 jets at stake over the next 20 years.

Airbus blames a shortage of delivery slots for slow sales of the A350-1000, which has notched up 88 orders and seen several cancellations since launch, though its US rival claims Airbus was wrong to try to compete in two segments with one plane.

Raising production would free up more slots to be sold.

"Airbus is looking at ways of increasing A350-1000 production," a person familiar with the matter said.

It was not immediately clear whether this would be at the expense of production for the two smaller models of A350 or mean an increase in total production. There has been speculation the A350-800 could be scaled back to focus on larger models.

A spokeswoman for EADS subsidiary Airbus declined specific comment on production for the A350-1000, but said production for the overall series - officially known as the A350 XWB - was designed to accommodate changes in demand.


"The A350 XWB final assembly line is designed to be flexible and to be able to produce all three members of the A350 family (-800, -900, -1000)," the spokeswoman said by email.

"We are working on a ramp-up to 10 per month to be reached four years after the first A350 XWB delivery and are constantly and closely following market trends so that we anticipate and adapt our production to meet our customers' needs."

At first, Airbus will focus on production of the 314-seat A350-900, the best-selling of all three A350 models and one designed to compete head-to-head with the 787 Dreamliner.

Airbus says the A350 will take to the skies in the summer of 2013 and enter service in the second half of 2014, a year later than originally scheduled. Three different models of the aircraft will seat between 270 and 350 people.

The first A350-1000 is due in 2017 but it is sold out until late-decade.

The competing 787 Dreamliner went into service in Japan a year ago after complications with a ground-breaking production system and global supply chain delayed its first deliveries by three years.

Even before last week's inauguration, the 74,000-square metre Toulouse plant has been building the first A350 that will never fly but will be shaken apart in stress tests.

Full production will now begin in earnest ahead of next year's maiden flight, rising to 10 planes a month by late 2018.


Airbus is locked in a psychological battle with Boeing over the A350-1000, which was recently beefed up with a more powerful Rolls-Royce engine to improve payload and range.

Boeing produces seven 777s a month and plans to lift this to 8.3 after a record sales streak for the jet, which was extended by a $US4.5 billion Turkish Airlines order on Monday.

But even the 777's industry fans acknowledge the 1990s metal design will eventually face headwinds from the A350-1000's lighter design, and Boeing has been toying for months with a 777 revamp that includes less thirsty engines and new wings.

While Boeing is under pressure from top buyers such as Emirates to firm up its plans for the 777X, as the tentative new version is known, Airbus is under pressure to score quick sales of the A350-1000 to recoup lost momentum. It says the plane offers significant savings over the current 777.

After a flurry when the A350 was launched in 2007, sales of the 350-seat A350-1000 went quiet until Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific placed a new order for 10 and upgraded orders for 16 of the smaller A350-900 model in July.

Industry analysts say that as well as pushing new sales, Airbus is actively trying to persuade buyers of its smaller A350-900 to trade up in pursuit of more payload and range, and a further rejigging of the order backlog cannot be ruled out.

On Tuesday last week, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault fought through fog and an air traffic control strike to fly to Toulouse, southwest France, to name the plant after "Father of Airbus" Roger Beteille, a pioneer of twin-engined long haul passenger jets.

Germany is withholding half of an estimated 1.2 billion euro A350 development loan to voice unease over jobs.

The United States has accused Europe of ignoring recent World Trade Organisation rulings by subsidising the aircraft through development loans, while Germany has withheld part of its share of the loans in a row with Airbus over jobs.