A plane championed as the stalwart of the next era of long haul air travel has successfully completed its first flight.
The Ultra Long Range A350 XWB took off from the Airbus' headquarters in Toulouse before performing a short flight above the south of France and returning to the French city.
The aircraft has a range of 9700 nautical miles (17,900 km) and will later in the year serve a record-breaking route between Singapore and New York, courtesy of Singapore Airlines. The flight, at 15,322 km, will shoot to the top of the table as the world's longest commercial flight.
Marisa Lucas-Ugena, head of A350 marketing at the French aircraft manufacturers, said that the A350 ULR is the "most advanced airplane for now and for many years to come".
The aircraft is a modified version of earlier A350 variants with a new fuel system that enables it to carry 24,000 litres without the need for additional fuel tanks, which would add weight and impact efficiency.
"The Ultra Long Range A350 XWB is capable of flying over 20 hours non-stop, combining the highest levels of passenger and crew comfort with unbeatable economics for such distances," Airbus said.
Though the aircraft will be first flown by Singapore Airlines, which has ordered seven of the plane, Australian carrier Qantas will keep a keen eye on its progress, having launched Project Sunrise to encourage Airbus and Boeing to design aircraft capable of flying direct between London and Sydney, among other routes.
Airbus has said the A350 ULR would be able to perform such flights but that the manufacturer remains in conversation with Qantas "to meet its requirements for range, comfort and efficiency for its Sunrise challenge".
Airbus says of its new aircraft: "The A350 XWB is an all new family of widebody long-haul airliners shaping the future of air travel. The A350 XWB features the latest aerodynamic design, carbon fibre fuselage and wings, plus new fuel-efficient Rolls-Royce engines.
"Together, these latest technologies translate into unrivalled levels of operational efficiency, with a 25 per cent reduction in fuel burn and emissions, and significantly lower maintenance costs. The A350 XWB features an Airspace by Airbus cabin offering absolute well-being on board with the quietest twin-aisle cabin and new air systems."
What is Boeing's answer to Airbus?
The Seattle-based manufacturer will pit its 777-8x against the A350ULR.
Boeing described the 777-8x as "the largest and most efficient twin-engine jet in the world, unmatched in every aspect of performance".
Still under development but expected to begin test flights next year, the 777-8x is listed as having a range of 8700 nautical miles (16,100 km), which as it stands would rank shorter in range than its Airbus rival.
Boeing's vice president of marketing Randy Tinseth said in February: "We can't build one aeroplane for one airline and compromise the aircraft for the major markets.
"We'll figure out something, I'm confident."
What is Project Sunrise?
So-named as a nod to the famed Double Sunrise flights flown by the Australian carrier across the Indian Ocean during the Second World War, when passengers would witness two dawns from the cabin, Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO, has described his airline's ambitions as "the antidote to the tyranny of distance".
Qantas has challenged Airbus and Boeing, the world's two behemoths of aircraft manufacture, to develop a plane capable of flying anywhere in the world from anywhere else, ushering in a new era of ultra long-haul travel.
Being an Australian carrier, the routes targeted by Project Sunrise all start Down Under. But Qantas is keen for services to be able to reach the likes of London and Paris not just from Western Australia, i.e. Perth, but from Sydney and Melbourne on the east coast by 2022.
Cape Town, New York and Rio de Janeiro, have all been highlighted by Qantas, too, as possible destinations.
Broadly speaking, it would make most of the world reachable non-stop from anywhere else, as long as airlines see the commercial potential.
The world's longest commercial flights
- Doha-Auckland, Qatar Airways, 14,529 km
- London-Perth, Qantas, 14,496 km
- Dubai-Auckland, Emirates, 14,200 km
- Los Angeles-Singapore, United Airlines, 14,113 km
- Houston-Sydney, United Airlines, 13,833 km
- Sydney-Dallas, Qantas, 13,837 km
- San Francisco-Singapore, United Airlines & Singapore Airlines, 13,592 km
- Atlanta-Johannesburg, Delta, 13,581 km
- Abu Dhabi-Los Angeles, Etihad, 13,502 km
- Dubai-Los Angeles, Emirates, 13420 km
The Telegraph, London