TOULOUSE, France — The A350-XWB, the first all-new commercial jet from Airbus in more than six years, took wing into partly cloudy skies here Friday.
There was a lot more riding on it than the multinational crew of two test pilots and four engineers sharing the inaugural flight.
The new aircraft carries the burden of dispelling Airbus’ reputation for cross-cultural and industrial dysfunction that caused costly delays in the introduction of the company’s previous plane, the A380 superjumbo. And in the wake of last year’s failed merger of the plane maker’s parent, European Aeronautic Defense and Space, with the British military contractor BAE Systems, the company is betting its future ever more heavily on the success of commercial jets like the A350.
It is no coincidence that Airbus showed off the A350 — a twin-engine wide-body jet meant to compete with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and 777 — as the global aviation industry assembled for the biennial Paris Air Show, scheduled to open Monday at Le Bourget Airport north of the French capital.
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Bloomberg News reported Friday that United Airlines is in talks to buy the largest versions of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’ A350, making it the first U.S. carrier to fly the new long-haul jets.
The carrier will modify a 2009 order to take 25 widebody A350-1000s instead of the smaller -900 variant as once planned, said the Bloomberg report, citing unidentified people familiar with the discussions. United also will convert options for a couple dozen A350s and Dreamliners into firm orders, with the Boeing jets being the new 787-10X model, according to the report.
On Friday, however, the spotlight was on Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, about a 90-minute flight south of Paris, where at 10 a.m. local time the A350 lifted effortlessly from the sun-dappled runway. The purr of the plane’s two Rolls-Royce engines was momentarily drowned out by the cheers and whistles of a throng of Airbus employees, well-wishers and members of the media who had gathered — camera phones at the ready — to capture the moment.
The distinctive curled tips of the jet’s carbon-fiber wings glinted briefly before it slipped into the clouds.
Judith Lindner, a 36-year-old quality-control technician from an Airbus factory in Stade, Germany, whooped as the jet sailed past, jabbing her thumb in the air.
“What a tremendous thrill — fantastic,” Lindner said, adding that she had helped to inspect the vertical stabilizer on the plane’s tail. “I feel such a mix of pride and relief.”
Analysts said the value of a well-timed and well-executed A350 debut could not be overestimated. Some said they still expected Airbus to try to maintain the public-relations momentum by staging an A350 flyby sometime during the weeklong show in Paris.
Not so long ago, prospects did not look nearly as bright for Airbus, when it was struggling to roll out its last big-bet plane: the twin-deck A380. Miscommunication in the design, manufacturing and installation of electrical cables resulted in a series of missteps in the mid-2000s that delayed the A380’s first delivery by three years. The debacle prompted a management reshuffle in 2006 and more than $6 billion in losses.
Airbus executives say they are determined not to repeat the experience.
For the new A350, the company has reconceived its internal design systems and decision-making, even involving major suppliers in the design process from the start. And while in the past Airbus engineers in France and Germany operated independently — in some cases using incompatible tools and software — they now collaborate virtually, working from shared digital blueprints.
So far, analysts said, Airbus has managed to keep the A350’s development hiccups to a relative minimum. Friday’s first flight took place about a year later than the company had originally envisioned when it began marketing the plane to airlines in 2007 — not all that significant a delay in aerospace terms.
Airbus, of course, is not the only jet maker that has grappled with reputational challenges over new products. Boeing rolled out its 787 Dreamliner three years late, and early this year was forced to ground the plane for three months after its lightweight but volatile lithium-ion batteries proved prone to overheating.
“This is quickly coming down to a battle of credibility” between Airbus and Boeing, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Fairfax, Va. “Signaling that you are a reliable provider sends a great message.”
That is especially crucial amid a recent ebb in commercial jet orders after several years of record purchases.
This month, the International Air Transport Association, a trade group based in Geneva and Montreal, predicted that its 240 member airlines would report a collective profit of $12.7 billion in 2013, up from $7.6 billion last year.
But those expected gains are largely the result of falling fuel prices and efforts to pack more customers onto fewer planes, rather than a jump in travel demand.
In recent years, the battle for commercial jet sales has focused on shorter-range, single-aisle models like the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737, particularly after the two companies introduced new versions of those planes equipped with more fuel-efficient engines. But airlines have also begun to show renewed interest in the latest wide-body jets, which can offer significantly greater range and more seats than previous models — promising bigger profit margins on long-distance routes.
Several flag carriers — including Japan Airlines, Lufthansa of Germany and Malaysia Airlines — say they are considering placing multibillion-dollar orders for the larger jets, including the A350 and the 787.