TOULOUSE ― Airbus's next-generation A350 plane takes off on its first test flight on Friday, a milestone for an airliner the firm hopes will challenge rival Boeing's lead in the lucrative long-haul market.
Timed to perfection before the start of the high-profile Paris Air Show on Monday where Boeing and Airbus will vie for the spotlight, the plane will lift off from the southwestern city of Toulouse at 0800 GMT – weather permitting.
A British and a French test pilot will fly the long-haul plane – more than half of which is made of light composite materials that reduce fuel costs – assisted by a flight engineer and three other engineers at the back.
The maiden flight is a key milestone in the A350 development programme. If successful, the plane will enter a test-flying period Airbus hopes will last less than 18 months, with first delivery expected at the end of next year.
The A350 will complete Airbus's long-haul stable, which includes the A380 super jumbo. It will gradually replace the older A330, a popular plane that analysts say has generated almost half of the firm's revenues in recent years.
Airbus has positioned the A350 between Boeing's popular 777 and its new 787 Dreamliner, which came into service in September 2011 and also makes extensive use of composites. They hope it will eat away at both planes' markets.
The test flight may cast a shadow over Boeing at the Paris Air Show, where the US firm is hoping to prove its Dreamliner is back on track after recent technical problems forced the worldwide grounding of the fleet.
Christophe Menard, aerospace and defence 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 on Friday, then it clearly means that they are more in command of their development process than Boeing," he said.
Still, the 787 is ahead of the A350 in terms of orders – 890 versus 613. 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," said Nick Cunningham, an aviation analyst at the London-based Agency Partners.
"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.
"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." ― AFP/VNS