Airbus expressed growing optimism about the schedule for the keenly-awaited maiden flight of its A350, amid speculation that its first new jet in almost a decade could debut before next month's Paris air show.
Airbus A350 leaving the paint shop. Image: Airbus
Scooping headlines at the world's largest aerospace event would give a boost to the A350, which went through several changes in design but for the time being seems relatively immune from problems which have plagued Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.Airbus parent EADS described the A350 project as "challenging," but stuck to a summer target date for the first flight of Europe's response to the 787.In the best-case scenario, that could mean a flight before the June 17-23 show at Le Bourget, according to industry experts, while other likely working dates extend into July."You will not hear me today giving any new comment on any date; we are preparing the aircraft, we are doing ground tests, we are continuing structural tests," Harald Wilhelm, the finance director of both Airbus and parent EADS, told reporters."The important thing is that it is a 'mature' first flight and this will happen in the summer I think. On this we are more and more confident."The optimistic tone added extra polish to better than expected EADS first-quarter results, driven by higher production of the most profitable existing Airbus jets, analysts said,Gains at Airbus, which recovered the industry's top spot in deliveries from Boeing in the first quarter, eclipsed a weak performance at the EADS helicopter division. But the group also had to contend with a large outflow of cash in the quarter.Results from Europe's largest aerospace group confirmed a solid industry outlook after Boeing beat quarterly forecasts, marking a rare bright spot in the economy as plane makers ramp up output to meet strong demand from Asia and the Middle East.Developed at an estimated cost of USD$15 billion, the 300-seat A350 emerged from the paint shop in Airbus livery on Monday, ready to start a final series of tests before the first flight.It is the first European airliner built mainly from lightweight carbon-fibre, a process championed by Boeing that has struck a chord with airlines keen to cut fuel bills.France's La Tribune newspaper reported the plane could fly in mid-June.Even so, most experts consider it unlikely the jet will make the short trip to Le Bourget for the air show, since it must first accumulate essential flying hours.RISKS AHEADThe final say over the date of the A350's first flight lies with the company's test pilots, who will gradually narrow down a series of planning dates after each successive ground trial.Analysts say that even if Airbus pulls off what would be a dramatic PR coup by getting the A350 aloft before Le Bourget, the 787 crisis reminds investors that several years of risk lie ahead until all three variants are established in service.Airbus is also keen to avoid repeating Boeing's mistake of promising to fly the 787 in time for an air show during its development, only to have to backtrack at the last minute."They are doing all the right things, and it is okay to be quietly confident, but they can't relax until it has entered service and been in service for a little while," said Nick Cunningham, aerospace analyst at Agency Partners in London.The base model A350-900 is due to enter service with Qatar Airways in mid-2014. A larger variant, the 350-seat A350-1000, is not due to enter service until 2017.Most cash for such developments comes from record output of A320 and A330 jets, which helped push EADS first-quarter revenue up 9 percent to EUR€12.4 billion (USD$16.1 billion). Airbus also relies on government loans, a source of friction with Boeing.EADS' operating profit before one-off items - a measure stripping out major project charges or currency swings - rose 56 percent to EUR€741 million, the group said in a statement."Reported" operating profit, which still excludes goodwill and some exceptional items, rose 79 percent to EUR€596 million.EADS confirmed its forecasts for the year, including a EUR€3.5 billion operating profit before one-off items. It sees stable free cash flow despite a EUR€3.2 billion drain in the first quarter when it built up inventory for higher production.A weaker picture emerged at Eurocopter where deliveries of the Super Puma have been hit by safety concerns after two emergency North Sea ditchings, reportedly blamed in part on corrosion. Sales and earnings posted double-digit declines."A recovery is expected later in 2013 as Eurocopter has now identified the root cause for the technical issues," EADS said. Source: Reuters
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