After many years on the drawing board and $15bn (£9.5bn) of investment the latest potential blockbuster from Airbus made its long-awaited first flight on Friday. The A350XWB (extra wide body) is an aircraft which Airbus says will set new standards in fuel efficiency and environmental performance. The long-range, twin-engined plane is being pitched as a direct rival to Boeing’s radical 787 Dreamliner, another airliner which claims to have taken aircraft technology to new heights. Yet, the A350 is also an aircraft that Airbus never really wanted to build.
Towards the middle of the last decade, the European manufacturer had its hands full preparing for the launch of its long-delayed A380 superjumbo. The double-decker giant was a hugely complex machine, and its development costs were spiralling. So Airbus was reluctant to commit billions of dollars to another clean-sheet design. But, Airbus needed a new product to take on Boeing’s planned Dreamliner, which was already attracting a great deal of interest from airlines. Unlike the A350, Boeing will have its Dreamliner on display at the Paris show
The Dreamliner was to be built using lightweight carbon composites, and to feature advanced aerodynamics in order to reduce fuel consumption and running costs. The design Airbus came up with was based on its existing A330 model, but with a lighter fuselage, new wings and new engines, in an attempt to match the Dreamliner’s fuel efficiency. But potential customers weren’t impressed. Among the fiercest critics was Steven Udvar-Hazy, then head of International Lease Finance Corporation, which buys huge quantities of aircraft.
A very powerful figure within the industry, he suggested publicly that the A350 as planned simply wasn’t up to the job. Several airline chiefs agreed – and in mid-2006, Airbus went back to the drawing board. The result is the aircraft that now stands on the tarmac at Airbus’ headquarters in Toulouse, and it seems that airlines have already given it a sizeable vote of confidence. Via A350: The aircraft that Airbus did not want to build.