With Airbus having announced the cancellation of the A380 program in 2019, its largest production widebody aircraft going forward will be the A350. Initially entering service in 2015, after first flying two years beforehand, the A350 is also Airbus’s newest aircraft line (excluding updated variants of older models like the A320 and A330, and the A220 whose production Airbus took over from Bombardier).
But why did Airbus build the A350, and how has market response been?
Responding to a dream
It is widely accepted that the development of the A350 was a response to Boeing’s revolutionary 787 ‘Dreamliner.’ Seeing its arch-rival create a highly-advanced and ultra-efficient long-range widebody, Airbus had to respond with something equal or better.
The key aspects of the Dreamliner that Airbus had to compete with were range and efficiency. A longer range is, of course, generally a key by-product of increased efficiency. Boeing achieved this largely through the use of advanced materials such as carbon composite, in addition to the strategic use of titanium and aluminum.
The end-result of Airbus’s endeavor was the A350XWB, in which XWB stands for “extra wide body”. In fact, the A350 cabin is 12.7 cm (5.0 in) wider at the eye level of a seated passenger than the 787’s cabin. This width allows airlines to configure their cabins in a high-density 10-abreast (3-4-3) configuration if they so desired.
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The A350 claims to have the quietest cabin on a twin-aisle aircraft. It also reportedly features “the highest possible air quality with optimized cabin altitude, temperature, and humidity.” A quieter cabin and optimized humidity were also big selling points for the 787, as were larger windows. The A350’s cabin also features these.
Aiming between the 787 and 777
Although many of the new and advanced features of the A350 mimic those of the 787, the A350 is wider and longer than the Dreamliner. In fact, the largest variant, the A350-1000, competes directly with the Boeing 777-300 and -300ER in both capacity and range.
The A350-1000 has a range of 14,800 km (7,992 NM), while the 777-300ER has a range of 14,600 km (7,884 NM). The former has a seating capacity of 369 while the latter can seat closer to 365. Of course, this all depends on cabin configuration and seating choice. Therefore, another reason Airbus built the A350 was to compete more directly with Boeing’s largest passenger jets.
Airlines have responded quite well to the A350. To date, Airbus has over 900 orders for the two variants of the aircraft. It has delivered over 400 of these. However, if its main competition is the 787, it still has some catching up to do. Indeed, the Dreamliner has over 1,500 orders logged for its three variants, of which it has delivered nearly 1,000. However, a key reason for this lead is the fact that the 787 entered service roughly four and a half years earlier.
Additionally, Airbus’ newest model has not come with the same unexpected issues as seen with the launch of the 787. These include lithium-ion battery issues, and problems with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine. Both of these problems caused extensive groundings for the Dreamliner.
Based on the timing, specifications, and features offered, one can see that Airbus built the A350 to compete with both the Boeing 777 and 787. Aiming firmly between the two Boeing aircraft allows Airbus to capture both markets whilst offering a good degree of commonality with the rest of the Airbus family.
The A350 has been in service for around six years now, accumulating a respectable list of happy customers. As such, it is safe to assume that the A350 will continue to grace long-haul routes worldwide for quite some time.