PARIS - Airbus's new A350 plane is due to take off on its much-anticipated maiden flight Friday, a milestone for an aircraft the firm hopes will help close the gap with rival Boeing (IW 500/16) in the lucrative long-haul market.
Weather permitting, the next-generation plane will lift off from the southwestern city of Toulouse at 8:00 a.m. GMT with six people on board - a British and a French test pilot, a flight engineer and three other engineers at the back.
The test flight of the long-haul plane - more than half of which is made of composite materials - comes just days ahead of the Bourget air show where Boeing and Airbus traditionally vie for the spotlight over plane orders.
"All recent programs before it, both by Airbus, Boeing and others, have had reasonably horrendous technical problems and delays," said Nick Cunningham, an aviation analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.
"So every time you hit a milestone (such as a test flight), it's good news because it means that you've missed an opportunity to have another big delay."
If the maiden flight is successful, Airbus will enter a test flying period it hopes will last less than 18 months, and plans to deliver its first A350 at the end of next year.
The A350 will complete Airbus's long-haul stable, which includes the A380 super jumbo, and will gradually replace the older A330, a plane that has generated almost half of the firm's revenues in recent years, Cunningham said.
The extensive use of carbon-based composites means the new plane will be lighter and deliver fuel economy - much like its rival, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
Despite dethroning Boeing in the medium-haul segment, Airbus still needs to catch up with its rival in the long-range market, where the U.S. firm dominates with its 777 and Dreamliner, despite the latter's recent technical problems.
Initially meant as a direct competitor to the Dreamliner, Airbus has now positioned the A350 between Boeing's popular 777 and the new 787, hoping to eat away at both planes' markets.
Boeing Seeks to Avoid Shadow
The test flight may cast a big shadow over Boeing at the Bourget air show, which kicks off Sunday.
The U.S. company is hoping to use the event to prove its Dreamliner is well and truly back on track after recent lithium battery problems forced planes already in operation to be grounded for months.
Christophe Menard, aerospace and defense analyst at Kepler Capital Markets in Paris, said that despite delays on the A350, Airbus was getting the plane out faster than Boeing managed to do with its Dreamliner.
"If the plane flies well Friday, then it clearly means that they are more in command of their development process than Boeing," he said.
Richard Aboulafia, a U.S.-based aviation analyst, added Airbus could argue that "Boeing's ability to execute is questionable" and that the A350 "is a better bet in terms of timing and availability."
Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in term of orders - 890 versus 613. At the end of May, Boeing had delivered some 57 Dreamliners.
And even if Friday's flight goes to plan, the A350 then enters the test flying phase where anything could still go wrong.
"The risk is they find other things that they hadn't expected...They start building aircraft before they finish certifying and testing, so if you run into any issues, it gets very expensive as you have to fix the ones you already built," said Cunningham.
"That's the problem that Boeing has been having with the 787 and it's an issue that Airbus themselves had with the A380, so it's a nail-biting time over the next year."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2013