Airbus will be promoting its family of commercial airliner products in traditional style at the Paris air show, with the event to begin almost 10 years to the day since its current best-selling widebody product – the A350 – performed its debut flight.
On 14 June 2013 – three days before that year’s Le Bourget gathering started – the first prototype of the new-generation twinjet took to the air from Toulouse. The Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-powered A350-900 completed a roughly 4h test flight.
“If you think it looks beautiful on the ground you should see it flying,” commented Airbus’s then flight-test division president Fernando Alonso, who was one of six crew members aboard for the milestone sortie.
“After the first few minutes it didn’t feel like we were doing a first flight,” said Airbus chief test pilot Peter Chandler. “It felt like we were flying an aeroplane at the end of a test programme, it was so relaxed and so predictable.”
Airbus’s original concept for the A350 had emerged in 2004, after its belated realisation that Boeing’s then-7E7 proposal – which would later become the 787 – was attracting substantial interest from customers in the 250-seat middle-market sector occupied by its A330.
The European airframer believed it would simply be able to refresh the A330-200 and -300 with the A350-800 and -900 – straight derivatives using lightweight materials and a version of the 7E7’s engine – and press the aircraft into service in 2010, just behind its rival.
Airbus offered the original A350 with a non-bleedless GE Aerospace GEnx-72A1 powerplant as the launch engine. R-R would only confirm its own candidate – the Trent 1700, adapted from the Trent 1000 – nearly a year later.
With Airbus playing catch-up to Boeing, Qatar Airways lifted the A350’s prospects significantly in 2005 with an agreement for 60 aircraft. This saw it become the largest customer for the new jet when it was formally launched later the same year with a total of 140 commitments.
Air Europa, TAM, US Airways and several leasing firms were among the other initial takers. Finnair, which signed for the A350 a couple of months after its launch, became the first operator to select Trent engines for the type.
The original 250-seat A350-800 and 300-seat -900 were pitched with respective ranges of 8,800nm (16,300km) and 7,500nm.
But high-profile customers had started indicating disquiet over the A350 proposal, sensing that the aircraft was little more than a warmed-over A330. Boeing was mercilessly mocking its rival’s offering as such, with advertising pointing out that the 7E7 was all-new.
Acknowledging operators’ and lessors’ concerns that it needed a more impressive competitor to the 7E7, Airbus extensively reviewed the A350’s design.
It opted for a more ambitious programme, comprising a completely new aircraft family that would feature a wider cabin. This would not only compete against the 787, but also take on the 777-300ER which, until then, had been unchallenged in the large twinjet sector.
Airbus retained the A350 designation, but underscored the increased cabin size of its new design by adding the ‘XWB’ branding, signifying the ‘extra-wide body’. It planned to produce three versions: a baseline -900, along with the stretched -1000 and a -800 shrink.
Although GE had been the lead engine supplier on the previous A350 design, it was also the exclusive powerplant supplier for the 777-300ER, so Airbus eventually entered into its own sole-source agreement with R-R. The propulsion provider ditched the Trent 1700 in favour of a higher-thrust design, the Trent XWB.
Deliveries of the A350-900 began in December 2014, with a first customer example handed over to Qatar Airways. The carrier launched revenue services with the type the following month on the Doha-Frankfurt route, employing it in a 283-seat, two-class configuration.
The baseline model’s stretched-fuselage sibling, the A350-1000, made a 4h 18min first flight on 24 November 2016, powered by Trent XWB-97 engines. Deliveries of this variant commenced in February 2018, again with Qatar Airways leading the way in introducing the type, with a 327-seat layout.
According to its orders and deliveries data, Airbus had sold 967 A350s, and delivered 530 of these, by the end of April 2023. Its orders split includes 755 -900s (78%), 173 -1000s (18%) and 39 of the in-development A350F dedicated freighter (4%).
Cirium fleets data shows there were 480 of the type in commercial airline service as of 9 May, with the top five-ranked operators being Singapore Airlines (SIA/61), Cathay Pacific (46), Qatar Airways (36), Delta Air Lines (25) and Air China (24). That total excludes a trio of -900s employed by the German air force in the head of state and VIP transport role.
Notably, OAG data shows that SIA used the A350-900 Ultra Long-Range model to perform the world’s longest-range commercial flight last year, between New York JFK and Singapore – a recorded distance of 8,279km, with the aircraft in a reduced 161-seat layout. Qantas, meanwhile, plans to introduce the -1000 on nonstop ultra-long-haul routes between Australia’s east coast and New York and the UK from 2025 via its Project Sunrise.
Some 411 -900s were in active use in early May, along with 69 -1000s, representing an 85% share for the baseline version.
Another 46 A350s were listed by Cirium as being in storage as of 9 May, including six previously flown by China’s Hainan Airlines, and 17 Qatar Airways examples – all -900s – which are progressively being returned to use. Airbus and Qatar Airways announced on 1 February 2023 that they had “reached an amicable and mutually agreeable settlement in relation to their legal dispute over A350 surface degradation and the grounding of A350 aircraft”.
Cirium data shows that another 442 A350s are on order, although this total includes commitments from Aeroflot (11 -900s) and Iran Air (16 -1000s), which cannot receive the aircraft due to international sanctions imposed on Moscow and Tehran. Excluding those deals, Airbus’s backlog stands at some 415 units.
By comparison, Boeing delivered 1,054 of its rival 787 by 30 April, when it cited a firm order backlog of another 533. Available in the -8, -9 and -10 models, the Dreamliner entered service with Japan Airlines in 2011.
This year has already delivered several boosts for the A350 programme. The first came as Air India in February announced plans for a massive fleet renewal activity, to include both Airbus and Boeing products, among them 34 A350-100s and six -900s. These have yet to be contracted, however.
Lufthansa in March ordered another five -900s, along with 10 -1000s, to further boost its fleet. Currently using only the smaller model, the German carrier will begin operations with the larger variant in 2026. Airbus also sold four A350F freighters to an undisclosed customer, and on 9 May announced that Philippine Airlines intends to take nine A350-1000s.
Following the start of A350 shipments in late 2014, when a single -900 was handed over, annual deliveries were on a steady upward curve until the Covid-19 pandemic hit air travel and widebody demand especially from March 2020.
From 112 A350s shipped in 2019, the number slumped to 59 in 2020 and then 53 in 2021, before recovering slightly to total 62 last year.
Just nine A350s – all -900s – were shipped in the first four months of this year: three to China Eastern Airlines, two for Starlux Airlines, and lone examples to Air China, Ethiopian Airlines, SIA and Turkish Airlines.
Speaking during a first-quarter results briefing on 3 May, Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury said the A350 delivery situation will remain “weak” in the second quarter.
Deliveries of the twinjets will be backloaded to the latter half of the year “more than average”, he says, due to supply chain factors including the late delivery of “high-end seats”, rather than to a lack of demand.
Airbus, which currently produces six A350s per month, is planning a gradual ramp-up of capacity to return to triple-figure annual output. Its current goal is to achieve “rate 9” – nine deliveries per month – at the end of 2025.
Family planning: why Airbus shrank away from -800 variant
Airbus originally envisioned the A350 XWB as a three-member family, centred on the -900 variant, with a stretched -1000 as well as a smaller -800.
Simple shrinks generally tend to involve a weight penalty as a result of excess structure, but the airframer decided instead to optimise the -800 in order to reduce its weight, structurally modifying the twinjet and implementing changes to its landing-gear, wheels and brakes.
The aircraft would use derated Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines and have a range of around 8,300nm (15,300km).
However, when Airbus started to concentrate on the -800’s development, the rationale for the optimisation became less clear.
While the lighter structure offered reduced fuel burn, potential customers expressed concerns that the divergence in commonality would not be beneficial to them if they operated the -800 alongside other A350 variants.
Airbus chose not to pursue the improved economics of a reduced take-off weight in favour of simplifying the -800 as a straightforward shrink of the -900, allowing it to avoid the industrial complexity of optimisation.
The decision meant the airframer could instead accept the higher fuel burn and use the -800’s structure to offer some 250nm of enhanced range, or a corresponding increase in payload.
But Airbus’s decision to redesign the A350-1000 to compete more effectively with the Boeing 777-300ER, combined with the success of its A320-family Neo re-engining programme, resulted not only in a delay to the A350-800’s development but also raised the possibility that the A330 could also be re-engined to help protect Airbus’s position in the 250-seat sector.
Orders for the A350-800 peaked at about 180 aircraft in 2008 but subsequently declined as customers, including launch airline Qatar Airways, migrated to the -900.
The -800’s failure to attract sufficient interest and Airbus’s re-engining of the A330 for its -800 and -900 models – ironically, the foundation of the original pre-XWB A350 concept – ultimately led the airframer to abandon the smallest member of the A350 family.
When Airbus formally launched the A330neo programme, with Trent 7000 engines, on Bastille Day in 2014, it essentially consigned the A350-800 to the guillotine.
Developmental A350F set to lift airframer’s cargo prospects
Having secured a launch order for its A350F freighter from Air Lease in November 2021, Airbus is now progressing with development of the model, which will offer a 109t payload capacity.
To date, the company has announced commitments for a combined 39 A350Fs; one more than its delivered total of the lower-capacity A330-200F. Launched in 2007, the cargo variant of the previous-generation widebody twin is able to transport a load totalling only 64t.
Along with Air Lease (7), other takers for the A350F are: Air France-KLM Group (8, for operation by Air France Cargo and Martinair Cargo); CMA CGM (4); Etihad Airways (7); Silk Way West Airlines (2); and Singapore Airlines (7); along with an undisclosed customer (4).
The airframer on 3 May announced that it has “slightly adjusted” its industrial planning for the freighter, after achieving initial milestones.
Chief executive Guillaume Faury confirmed during a first-quarter results call that the A350F’s entry into service has shifted into 2026, describing this as a matter of a “few months” from the previous end-2025 timeframe.
Faury insists the slip does not amount to a
“re-baselining” of the schedule, with the shift instead related to overall programme execution.
The first components for the freighter were recently produced at its Airbus Atlantic plant in Nantes. This work involved machining metal components for its reinforced centre wing-box.
How Rolls-Royce secured its XWB position of power
With the A350 XWB programme Airbus, for the first time, entered an exclusivity arrangement with an engine supplier – Rolls-Royce is the sole powerplant manufacturer for the type with its Trent XWB. But this exclusivity was only formalised relatively recently.
The Trent XWB is a three-shaft engine featuring a 22-blade fan of 3m (118in) diameter, an eight-stage intermediate compressor and a six-stage high-pressure compressor, with a 9.6:1 bypass ratio.
R-R’s basic model, the Trent XWB-84 for the A350-900, has a thrust of 84,200lb (374kN), while derated versions are available down to 74,200lb for the XWB-75. The most powerful model, for the A350-1000, was originally a 93,000lb-thrust engine but was bumped to 97,000lb as the XWB-97 when Airbus undertook a redesign of the -1000 in 2011.
This redesign aimed to increase the aircraft’s competitiveness with the Boeing 777-300ER, for which GE Aerospace’s GE90 was the sole engine. As part of the modification, and the need for a higher-thrust engine, R-R was handed its own exclusivity on the -1000.
Airbus had intended an engine choice for the A350 XWB, having offered a GE GEnx powerplant as well as the Trent 1700 for the A350’s original iteration as a straight rival to the 787.
GE had been the lead engine on the earlier A350 concept, and customers who had ordered this aircraft with the GEnx powerplant were interested in a GE option on the A350 XWB.
But GE was reluctant to provide an engine for the A350-1000, owing to the possibility of cannibalising its 777 position, and Airbus could not conclude an agreement for the smaller A350 XWB variants – which, at the time, included both the -900 and -800.
Absence of a GE option gave R-R de facto exclusivity on the A350 family, although blade-durability issues on certain Trent models plus emergence of GE’s new GE9X engine for the 777X briefly raised the possibility of a rethink.
But Airbus and R-R quashed the idea in 2021, revealing a full Trent XWB exclusivity pact on all A350s to 2030, by which point R-R aims to have its new UltraFan engine available for consideration.
Meanwhile, service entry for an Enhanced Performance (EP) variant of the Trent XWB-84 selected by Singapore Airlines (SIA) in 2016 has slipped until the middle of the decade.
SIA had initially expected to field the update from late-2019, but now says it expects to “take delivery of the Trent XWB-84 EP engines from the first quarter of 2025”. They will “be used mainly” on its fleet of A350-900 Ultra Long-Range aircraft, offering a projected 1% improvement in fuel consumption.
Additional reporting by Dominic Perry