Over the past two years Airbus has brought down its final assembly cycle for the A380 by 30%, from 14 months to 10. The improvement signals the overcoming of the early production bottlenecks that weighed down the manufacturer as out-of-sequence structural components piled up and forced it to transfer personnel from other plants to complete and correct work in sections that had already been shipped for assembly.

Assembly will start in June on the first A380 for Malaysia Airlines, the eighth carrier to join the list of operators for the type.

Korean Air took delivery of its first A380 on 24 May - with four more for the Seoul-based airline due to be handed over this year - while the first China Southern airframe, having made its maiden flight on 3 March, will be delivered in the second half of this year.

A composite fuselage section for the A350 XWB is r
 © Airbus
Barrelling on: a composite fuselage section for the A350 XWB is rolled out in Hamburg

By the end of May, says Airbus executive vice-president for programmes Tom Williams, 79 customer A380s had gone through the wing-fuselage mating process in Toulouse. Ten customer aircraft were on the Toulouse final assembly line with 16 on the line in Hamburg.

Airbus's efforts to smooth the production run have been hampered by the Qantas in-flight Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine failure in November 2010, which resulted in the three Trent-powered A380 operators having to replace several engines on their fleets.

In the wake of the incident R-R instigated removal of all 42 engines with an early-standard modification of oil feed pipes in the intermediate turbine, and another 11 with subsequent designs. Airbus has also had to deal with the consequences of the Japanese earthquake, which affected the supplier of Trent 900 low-pressure turbine blades.

Williams admits that "there has been an impact on the delivery of new engines" but a recovery plan, agreed with R-R, is in place "to protect the final assembly line and deliveries". Engine deliveries, he says, are expected to be recovered by the first quarter of 2012.

By mid-April the A380 had achieved more than 30,000 revenue flights, transporting 12 million passengers, and clocked up 270,000h.

First A350XWB fuselage barrel
 © Airbus
The first A350 XWB fuselage barrel

The airframer is maintaining pressure on the rival Boeing 747-8, the passenger version of which has struggled to attract customers. A380 director of product marketing Richard Carcaillet claims a 405-seat 747-8's fuel burn per seat is 8% more than the A380 at 525 seats, and that Boeing's comparison showing the 747-8's figures as being better than the A380 have been achieved by using a higher A380 empty weight and different cabin standards.

Airbus is planning improvements to the double-deck aircraft, with increased design weights enabling it to offer greater payload-range capabilities from 2013, says Williams.

Risk-management lessons from the A380 development - as well as the hurdles faced by rival Boeing's 787 programme - are being incorporated into the A350 on which the airframer intends to begin final assembly work at the end of this year.

Airbus has started conducting virtual flights with the A350 "iron bird" rig following its introduction at Toulouse in May. The mechanism will carry out months of hydraulic, electric and flight-control systems integration testing. In the same month the manufacturer also initiated the aircraft's high-lift systems test rig at Bremen using a full-scale mock-up - 34m (110ft) long and 7m high - of the flap assembly for the A350-900, the first model in the three-member family.

But having shifted the final assembly schedule, the manufacturer has, almost inevitably, had to rejig the timetable for the first real flight. At the start of this year it had officially been aiming to fly the A350 in mid-2012, but now concedes that it still needs at least nine months to prepare, and the first flight is now scheduled "for the end of 2012".

Airbus parent EADS admitted in May that the development buffer had been used up. But Airbus argues that additional time spent early in the effort will bring returns later.

"The foundations of the programme are robust and a lot of risks have been mitigated, sometimes at the expense of more time spent - wing root joint, stringers damage tolerance, electrical systems installation - but always for the maturity of the programme," it adds.

Aerolia makes the six-window cockpit visor at Meau
 © Airbus
Aerolia makes the six-window cockpit visor at Meaulte in France

EADS chief financial officer Hans Peter Ring said in May that there was no sign of "any show-stoppers" and that component manufacture was progressing "quite well".

Airbus plans to bring the A350-900, powered by R-R Trent XWB engines, into service "by the end of 2013". The Trent XWB is to fly this autumn, on the A380 MSN1 test aircraft, one year before the maiden A350 flight.

Several major sections of the aircraft are already in recognisable form. Aerostructures specialist Aerolia is nearing completion of the six-window cockpit visor at its Meaulte plant. Another French plant at Nantes is producing the centre wing box and keel beam and manufacturing has started at Illescas, Spain, on lower wing covers and rear fuselage barrels. Upper wing covers are to be built at Stade in Germany.

Germany's Premium Aerotec facility in Nordenham has already produced the largest carbonfibre section, a 93m2 (1,000ft2) panel for the forward fuselage. Door openings were already cut from the panel but not the windows. "This is done for risk mitigation for the first shipsets only," says Premium Aerotec sales director Juergen Kuntner. "In serial production door openings and windows will be already cut as, otherwise, too much waste of material would occur."

US-based Spirit AeroSystems has also produced a large panel, the centre fuselage crown,. With risk-sharing partners and Airbus manufacturing plants all having started to produce the large carbonfibre components, the airframer says: "We are at the end of the demonstration that [the first A350] MSN001 parts can be manufactured and production can proceed."

The A350's first nose-gear and main landing-gear assemblies - built respectively by Liebherr Aerospace and Messier-Dowty - have been delivered to the UK test centre at Filton.

Cabin systems will be checked on another platform, a verification and validation system in Hamburg following power-on in May. "This test rig is unique in the global aviation industry," claims Airbus. "Not only can [turnaround elements] such as water and waste, communications and air supply be examined individually to see if they work properly, they can also be tested for smooth interplay in a real aircraft for the first time."

There are 55 suppliers and 125 work packages in play and Airbus says its risk-sharing partners' focus is on managing the volume of tasks and their own supply chains. "To get to final assembly line start at the end of this year is a major programme challenge," says Airbus. "The programme is challenging but risks are being managed through lessons learned from previous programmes."

Source: Flight International