Chapman Freeborn blog

How will the new Airbus A350 XWB fare against the current mid-sized airliners?

Eighteen months ago, the Airbus A350 XWB took its maiden flight from Toulouse-Blagnac Airport. As we enter the new year, the aviation industry looks toward the A350’s entry into commercial service in mid-2014, with Qatar Airways acting as the launch customer.

The A350 family sees the introduction of three variants; the 350-800, -900 and -1000. The family will compete directly with both the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the larger 777 – a strategy many aviation analysts have described as a risky move. Whether this is the case or not, the aircraft has certainly generated substantial interest, with a total of 764 firm orders in place from 37 customers so far.

So how will the A350 fare against the current mid-sized airliners?

The A350’s first unique feature is the extensive use of carbon-fibre reinforced polymer – both the fuselage and wing structures are primarily made of the material. A lot of the technology used on the aircraft was pioneered on the A380, and has been developed even further with a focus on efficiency. This makes the aircraft lighter, easier to maintain, more fuel efficient and Airbus claim the operating costs are up to 8% lower than the 787 Dreamliner.

At 254.3 million USD, the aircraft does come in at around five million more than the 787-9 (the equivalent Boeing variant) which has to be taken into account, but in the long term it seems the aircraft will be marginally cheaper to operate than the 787 and substantially cheaper than older aircraft in the same category.

The fuselage material choice also boasts excellent repairability, further reducing potential maintenance outlays. With both the A350-800 and the 787-9 holding a similar passenger capacity and range, it seems clear that airline and operator’s buying decisions are likely to be based purely on operational costs.

It’s worth noting that the A350-1000 variant is a larger aircraft than its siblings, and sits more on a par with the Boeing 777. Competing with the 777 has been arguably more of a challenge for Airbus, as the aircraft has already established itself as a very efficient, high capacity model. The A350-1000 is not expected to be in service until 2018, although it has firmed 176 orders so far. It’s been reported however that some of these same customers have made incremental orders for the 777. Clearly, competition is already well under way and both manufacturers will have their work cut out.

The A350’s fuselage is five inches wider at eye level than the 787. While this doesn’t sound monumental, this extra space has allowed Airbus to develop noticeably improved seating, headroom and overhead storage across all classes. The aircraft will hold the title for the widest economy seat at 19.25 inches. Not only this, the cabin noise is set to be very low due the latest in engine technology, as often noted by A380 passengers. These comfort and storage improvements are likely to make the A350 a popular choice for travellers.

Besides these improvements, it’s unlikely that the A350 will bring anything hugely revolutionary for passengers. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for travellers, bearing in mind the tendency for airlines to charge extra for new experiences, as seen with the launch of the A380.

In addition, it seems the aircraft is unlikely to bring the aircraft charter or leasing market any direct benefit.

Darren Banham, Group Commercial Director at Chapman Freeborn, notes:

“New generation (NG) aircraft come at high leasing or financing premiums in comparison to older types in similar categories. This means that new aircraft need to be where they generate revenues, in the air, and in most cases will operate full schedules. Therefore capacity for ad-hoc, series charters or lease opportunities is highly unlikely. What the A350 will do is free up the early NG units such as the A330, B767 and some early model B777 aircraft which will result in increased capacity of these units, lower prices and increased passenger comfort and service with the early NG in-flight entertainment systems.”

While the A350 doesn’t bring anything monumentally different to aviation in general, the draw of reduced running costs has already garnered a good number of orders, and this is set to continue. The aircraft is likely to fare relatively well against mid-sized competition like the 787 and has already demonstrated itself as a good replacement for the A330, which has been a very successful aircraft.

Photo: Airbus rolled-out its third A350 XWB flight-test aircraft, MSN2, from the paint shop in Toulouse on January 2 2014.