IN FOCUS: A350 takes shape as 787 coverage spreads

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Airbus's A350 started taking on a recognisable form this year as the airframer's various manufacturing centres started shipping the twinjet's major structures to the final assembly line in Toulouse.

The forward fuselage and cockpit arrived at the line just before the end of last year and the delivery of the centre fuselage in early April meant that Airbus, while not quite making the first-quarter target, could formally begin assembling MSN5000, the static airframe.

klm a350 xwb airbus

Airbus 

Air France-KLM has a deal in place to buy up to 60 Airbus A350 XWBs

Airbus also received the rear section in April enabling it to roll out the full-length fuselage a few weeks later as it transferred the static airframe to a separate station for wing attachment.

Completing the wings has proven more of a headache than expected for Airbus - still smarting from the cracking problem that forced it to rethink bracket designs on the A380 - owing to a prolonged period refining the automated drilling process.

This slower pace has eventually resulted in a shift of the entry into service date, which has moved to the second half of 2014, but Airbus nevertheless hopes to keep the maiden sortie of the first flying A350, designated MSN1, on course for mid-2013.

Airbus's UK plant, at the time of the drilling issue, was working on three sets of wings - those for the MSN5000 static airframe and MSN1, as well as a wing being built especially for damage-tolerance tests in Germany.

next gen widebody spec

MSN5000's wings have been joined and the aircraft also has its stub vertical fin. The aircraft will shortly be moved to the same test building previously used for the A380.

Structural assembly of MSN1's first wing was finalised in August and it has been transferred to Bremen, Germany, where it is being fitted with flight-control and high-lift surfaces, before being transported to Toulouse for mating with the fuselage. Airbus UK will next deal with the wings for MSN3.

MSN1's forward fuselage, the cockpit of which is already fitted with avionics equipment, has been on the Toulouse line since July and during that month, the airframer began power-on tests.

A350 development also advanced in July in the crucial powerplant testing, when a second phase of work started on the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engine on the A380 testbed.

The engine, which the manufacturer says is beating fuel-burn performance of the A380's Trent 900s, is nearing completion of the test regime having undergone icing tests in northern Canada and hot-weather operation trials in the United Arab Emirates.

Airbus has hit a plateau in terms of A350 sales, which it attributes to a lack of early slots for the twinjet family and the two-year postponement in developing the largest model, the A350-1000, which will not enter service until 2017.

But the airframer appeared to overcome resistance towards the -1000 from Middle Eastern carriers by securing Cathay Pacific as a new customer for the type, through an agreement that offset cancellations by Etihad Airways and tipped net A350 orders into positive figures.

next gen widebody specAirbus is still insisting that it will build the smallest family member, the A350-800, despite poor sales and its efforts to maximise slot value by convincing -800 customers to migrate to the -900, the most popular model - comprising nearly two-thirds of the 558 A350s on order - and the first to fly.

One year after putting its new twinjet into airline service, Boeing is on the verge of having 787s operating in the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe as it works to ensure it can ramp up production to meet a backlog that still exceeds 800 airframes.

Boeing has started shifting 787s from its second production line in South Carolina. The first airframe has been delivered to Air India in October and the type is still bringing in orders - outselling, in gross terms, the 777 and 747 over the first nine months of the year.

These orders have included another batch from launch operator All Nippon Airways, which this year cited preliminary figures indicating promising early fuel-burn results compared with the carrier's 767-300ERs.

UNEXPECTED PROBLEMS

Technical issues involving the type had been relatively minor before both engine types separately encountered problems - now resolved - linked to seemingly-innocuous manufacturing changes: gearbox corrosion on Rolls-Royce Trent 1000s and cracking of the fan midshaft in the rival General Electric GEnx.

Boeing is aiming for a monthly production rate of five 787s by the end of this year, doubling to 10 by the end of 2013. It will build three per month in South Carolina by that point. At the main 787 production plant in Everett, the airframer has activated a surge line to cope.

But with the delivery of 787s starting to resemble a routine affair, the airframer is not only concentrating on development of the stretched 787-9 but increasingly looking towards timing a commitment to the proposed 787-10X.

The 290-seat 787-9 is due to enter service over the first half of 2014 and pre-production prototype sections feature in the airframer's build and test plans this year.

Wing-box manufacture for the -9 is under way at Japanese firm Fuji Heavy Industries' Handa plant, which started up a third production line for the component in July in order to meet Boeing's 10-per-month production demand for the 787.

air india 787 boeing

 Boeing

The first Boeing 787 built in South Carolina has been delivered to Air India

Rolls-Royce will offer an improved Trent 1000 for the -9, known as Package C, upon service entry, which will also become standard on the -8 later in 2014. The manufacturer has also detailed a further development of the Trent 1000, designated the 1000-TEN, intended for service entry in 2016 and designed to be fitted across the 787 family - including the -10X.

Rival GE has this year secured certification for a higher-thrust version of the 787's GEnx and has also been upgrading the powerplant through a performance improvement package, known as PIP2.

While confident that the 320-seat -10X will be in strong demand, Boeing is still deliberating over the timeframe in which to secure launch approval for the type, partly to avoid jeopardising the ramp-up of the -8 and initial production of the -9 but also because the manufacturer is juggling with the potential development schedule of a modernised 777. But the airframer has indicated that -10X approval could be sought by the end of 2012 or in early 2013.