If all goes to plan, this autumn, Qatar Airways will be the launch customer of the new Airbus A350 XWB. The twin-engine aircraft has been built by Airbus as a competitor to Boeing’s B787 Dreamliner.
So far, the A350 comes in not one size but three: the A350-800, which will carry 276 passengers; the A350-900, accommodating 315 passengers; and the A350-1000, seating 369. It is the A350-900 that is being manufactured first, with Qatar Airways expected to operate the first commercial flight at the end of the year.
Last month, Airbus unveiled its Customer Definition Centre in Hamburg. This new facility is the place where potential customers are persuaded that this is the aircraft for them, and where they will decide on the exact configuration.
While the centre officially opened in April, by then, 14 customers had already been through the process, choosing everything from the fabric and colour scheme of their planes to the seating and galley options.
The process is important for a number of reasons. First, without airlines being persuaded to buy new aircraft, we would never be able to fly on them. It doesn’t matter how improved or revolutionary an aircraft is, if the carriers aren’t convinced, the only place we’re going to see them is in computer-generated pictures, or perhaps in a corner of a museum reserved for glorious failures.
As Chris Emerson, Airbus’s senior vice-president for marketing, puts it: “The A350 has been designed and built with the marketplace in mind.” Unlike in the days of Concorde, today manufacturers respond to the requirements of airlines.
Emerson says: “The process is about much more than how many seats fit on these aircraft. It’s also who is sitting in these seats – are they on business or leisure trips? How price sensitive are they? Are they flying on trunk routes or newly established routes?”
The A350 has to cater for all of these possibilities, hence the degree to which it can be customised by the airlines. In one of the Airbus centre’s rooms is a mock-up of the aircraft interior, where various seating configurations can be tried out.
To keep things as simple as possible, Airbus has developed a catalogue approach to the options, compiling a list of approved suppliers of seats, fabrics and in-flight entertainment from which the airlines can choose.
Responding to airlines’ demands has meant doubling the size of the catalogue and the number of suppliers in the past 12 months alone, says Emerson, a process likely to continue as carriers seek to assert their own stamp of individuality.
How revolutionary is the A350? There is little doubt it is “new generation” when it comes to the construction and materials (see below). The innovation extends even to the tips of the wings.
Aircraft manufacturers discovered decades ago that adding winglets to the end of the wings reduces the spiral-shaped vortices that form, which create aerodynamic drag. The large version on the A350 XWB are what Airbus calls “sharklets” – they were pioneered on the A320 and can add both range or payload capacity.
In addition, the wings have been designed by extensive modelling with CFD (computational fluid dynamics) followed by wind tunnel testing, resulting in a highly tapered planform (the shape and layout of an aircraft’s fuselage and wing).
In addition, the wing “morphs” during flight, with onboard computer systems intelligently controlling the A350 XWB wing’s moving surfaces to tailor it for maximum aerodynamic efficiency in the various phases of flight.
Still, for flyers, much will depend on the airlines and how they can configure it. When Boeing brought out the B787, it wanted airlines to restrict economy seats to a 2-4-2 layout.
The first customer, ANA, did that initially, but subsequently, almost all customers (including ANA) went for a denser 3-3-3 configuration, and feedback from flyers has not been positive (see “Missed opportunity: why the B787 fails the comfort test in economy”, in Opinion).
The A350 has a wider fuselage than the B787 (5.61 metres versus 5.49 metres) so can more comfortably fit nine-abreast seating, with an average width of 18 inches in economy.
Probably not coincidently, Airbus has been running a campaign showcasing research on what customers want from airline seating, and it’s a minimum of 18 inches width.
When asked whether this was Airbus trying to persuade airlines, through educating the public, that they should not go for ten-across seating on the A350, Emerson said that he believed most airlines would go for nine-across but that in certain markets, where price sensitivity was high, some carriers had already ordered ten-across.
He wouldn’t release any names, although one has been widely rumoured to be a low-cost Asian carrier.
In truth, it is more likely that airlines opting for ten-abreast seating will be doing so to make flying affordable on routes that were not previously served by air, but by train or boat – given the discomfort of 24 hours on a train, ten-abreast would be less of a problem.
We will have to wait until the A350’s entry into service at the end of the year to experience the benefits. Until then, there are always the photos…
At the end of March, Airbus had orders for 812 A350 aircraft, ranging from the A350-800 to the A350-1000.
Almost 40 customers have been announced, and they include pretty much every airline you will have heard of, from Aer Lingus, Air France, British Airways, Finnair and Lufthansa, through to Asian carriers such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, and Gulf carriers such as Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways – the last of which is the launch customer.
Traditionally, US carriers ordered Boeing aircraft, but in the order book for the A350 you’ll find American Airlines – it took over the US Airways orders with its merger – while United and Delta have put out tenders to both Boeing and Airbus for aircraft in this range.
It poses stiff competition for Boeing’s own B787, although, of course, this has its own order book of more than 1,000 and climbing. a350xwb.com
EIGHT REASONS WHY THE A350 IS SOMETHING SPECIAL
The A350 XWB has a 220-inch (5.61-metre) fuselage cross-section, which Airbus says will allow for a standard 18-inch-wide seat in economy.
As with the B787, when entering through the main door, a large illuminated dome has been created in the overhead ceiling, adding to the feeling of spaciousness in the cabin.
Throughout, the interior has smooth curves, flowing lines, innovative lighting and wide windows, creating a more pleasant ambience for flights.
The aircraft has wide panoramic windows that Airbus says “create large angles of vision so that passengers of all sizes have a good view of the outside world”.
The cabin is fitted with a full-LED lighting system that has more than 16 million colour options and is controllable both lengthwise and side-to-side.
High-precision air management systems change the cabin air every two to three minutes through the latest in purifying filters and ozone removers, without creating drafts.
Air temperature control allows for up to eight different climate zones throughout the aircraft for passengers, as well as four additional areas for crew.
Lower cabin altitude pressure, which “contributes to the feeling of well-being, even on the longest-range trips”.
The aircraft uses up to 25 per cent less fuel than the A330.
It is the first jetliner to integrate fourth-generation systems from the outset, with high-bandwidth fibre optics allowing high-definition video, and seat monitors also upgraded to new standards – beginning with screens of up to 12 inches in economy and no bulky under-seat control boxes blocking passenger legroom.
Combined data and power cables are accommodated under a flat cabin floor.