Farnborough: Cautious welcome for new A350

This story is sourced from Flight International
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By Max Kingsley-Jones, Guy Norris & Mark Pilling
Additional reporting by Mary Kirby in Philadelphia

Airbus's revamped A350 Xtra Wide Body family has been well received by many of the original A350's customers - as well as one key potential buyer - but the manufacturer looks set for some tough negotiations if it is to convince them to pay more for the improved aircraft and to wait up to two or more years longer for their first deliveries.

A350 customers Finnair, International Lease Finance (ILFC), Kingfisher, TAM and Qatar Airways all tell Flight International they are pleased that Airbus has relaunched the aircraft. Emirates - a key potential customer that is playing the A350 against the proposed Boeing 787-10 - is also impressed with what Airbus has done to improve the aircraft. "A 12in [305mm] wider fuselage is a significant increase," says Emirates vice-chairman Maurice Flanagan, but he adds that the airline continues to also evaluate the 787-10 and is in "no real hurry" to make a selection.

ILFC chairman Steven Udvar-Hazy - credited by Airbus as the one who pushed it to finally revamp the design - says the new aircraft is "a step in the right direction. The speed has increased to Mach 0.85 so that addresses that issue. They've also tackled the empty weight, fuel consumption and passenger comfort."

But Hazy questions whether Airbus can "optimise one family of engines and one wing for such a large distance between models. They're trying to cover both the 777 and 787 with one model."

Boeing will not 'go poaching'
Boeing vice-president and 787 general manager Mike Bair says the US manufacturer is not about "to go poaching" disgruntled A350 customers, but is considering taking steps to create additional delivery slots (see story opposite). Bair says that, with the 787 production effectively sold out until mid-2012, Boeing is now evaluating a production boost after the 2008-9 period in response to demand from potential customers, which include some that have signed for the A350.

Airbus's plan to push prices up by over 20% because the new A350 is a "much more impressive aircraft" has not been well received by existing customers.

"We don't believe we should pay more," says Marco Antonio Bologna, president of Brazilian carrier TAM, which has 10 orders. Dr Vijay Mallya, chairman of Indian carrier Kingfisher, which has five A350s on order, says: "If they give it to me at the same price then obviously I am happy."

Industry sources say Qatar Airways - the largest A350 customer with a commitment for 60 aircraft, but which has not yet signed a firm contract - is also reluctant to agree to any price hike. The airline's chief executive Akbar Al Baker says he has been briefed about the new family and is happy that the manufacturer has publicly committed to the 2012 delivery schedule.

Al Baker adds that the airline is now in dialogue with Airbus and "awaiting final specifications and performance guarantees for the purchase agreement".

Finnair deputy chief executive Henrik Arle says that the airline has negotiated "arrangements to compensate" for changes to the airline's fleet-renewal plans, and the resulting delays.

US Airways, which is the only North American airline customer for the A350, says that it is "in constant contact with Airbus and we are evaluating [the economics and seating capacity] of its revised A350 to confirm if the aircraft still fits our needs".

Airbus chief operating officer customers John Leahy has conceded that he may lose "one or two" existing A350 customers as a result of the revamp and the delivery schedule changes.