There was considerable drama at the very beginning: Airbus was dead set on delivering the first A350 in the 2014 calendar year to show that it could stick to a schedule. But it had to convince launch operator Qatar Airways—and CEO Akbar Al Baker in particular—that the aircraft was indeed ready to be accepted. When Al Baker refused to take the aircraft on the original date, Airbus had to cancel the handover event at the last moment (and a buffet lunch for hundreds of guests that it had already ordered). Then, when the last of what has been described as “cosmetic” issues were resolved, the airline finally agreed to take the aircraft—days before Christmas. The delivery was accomplished in 2014, and it counted.
Since the handover, there has been little drama, at least not publicly. Airbus delivered 14 aircraft to four customers during the course of 2015, one less than promised. CEO Fabrice Bregier clearly blames Zodiac, the manufacturer of seats and lavatories, for the delay of the 15th aircraft. Three airlines are flying the A350 in revenue service: Qatar Airways, Vietnam Airlines and Finnair, while TAM Brazil (now Latam Airlines) is following this month once initial crew training is complete. Little has so far been revealed about the initial operating performance of Airbus’s latest design, and Qatar Airways refused to comment for this article. But the data and information available suggest that an enormous technical effort by Airbus and intense preparation by the airlines have proven successful in limiting early operational issues to the extent possible. While it has experienced nothing like the extensive software and hardware issues that made the introduction of the Boeing 787 such a long challenge both for the manufacturer and airlines, the A350 has had some teething problems, too.
The A350 fleet accumulated 3,000 cycles and around 16,000 flight hours between the start of commercial flights on Jan. 15, 2015, on the Doha, Qatar-Frankfurt route and the end of November 2015. The average daily utilization reached a relatively low 11.4 hr. and average sectors were also short at 5.2 hr. This was due to Vietnam Airlines’ short stage lengths, Qatar Airways’ network and the extensive flight-crew familiarity with the aircraft that must be developed through more short-haul flights initially. Neither Airbus nor the three airlines that were using the aircraft in scheduled services have revealed dispatch reliability data, saying it is “too early” and the data is “not meaningful” because of the low number of flights and aircraft on which it is based. But Airbus is sticking to its target of reaching the same or better reliability than the much more mature A330 fleet just four years after entry into service, by early 2019, according to Marc Virilli, senior director for the A350 program, customer services. Bregier says a dispatch reliability of 98.5% could be reached by the end of 2016.
“You cannot expect to have no problems,” says Didier Evrard, Airbus executive vice president for programs, who ran the A350 program until the end of 2014. “But what is important is that you take immediate action [once something comes up]. We have innovated quite a bit [in] the way we work.” Among other things, Airbus set up an internal “Airline 1” before delivery, forcing the flight-test department into airline-type procedures and planning. Evrard also believes the goal of 98.5% dispatch reliability can be reached within 1-2 years.
A large dedicated team inside Airbus is dealing with the A350 24 hr. per day, and Evrard has instructed the team to immediately escalate any serious and new issues up to his management level to ensure things are properly addressed.
Service-entry work with each customer began about two years before first delivery, Virilli says. “We wanted to make sure we familiarized them at a very detailed level so they knew what they would get,” he notes. The preparatory work not only included flight crews and operational issues, but technical data, maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) and spares provisioning. Airbus also sent to the initial customers 35-50-person service teams including experts in engineering, supply chain, mechanics and flight operations. They are intended to stay at the airline’s main base for several months and will only slowly be reduced in size as operational performance permits. Both Qatar and Vietnam are supported by 50-person teams for extended periods; the Finnair team is the same size but will not stay as long.
Qatar Airways now has seven aircraft in service and flies them from Doha to Dubai, Frankfurt, Munich, Philadelphia, Riyadh,in Saudi Arabia, and Singapore. Vietnam Airlines has four aircraft, the first of which started revenue services on July 3, 2015. The carrier operates its A350s from Hanoi to Seoul, Ho Chi Minh City, in Vietnam, Frankfurt and Paris as well as from Ho Chi Minh City to Frankfurt. Finnair has three aircraft and flies them essentially daily from Helsinki to Bangkok, Beijing and Shanghai. TAM is due to launch commercial services in January.
Airbus has detected three areas that needed particular attention in the A350 operation. First, the system that has created the most logbook entries so far is the onboard network that hosts all MRO applications. According to Virilli, some human-machine interface improvements as well as software updates were needed. “We have issued an evolution of the system which has already been implemented on the Qatar and Vietnam Airlines fleets, and we are seeing a decrease in the number of reports,” he says. The rerelease has eliminated a number of software bugs that also affected communications between the aircraft and the ground.
Secondly, Airbus was forced to issue a number of service bulletins and remove some galley inserts, such as ovens or coffeemakers, because of leaks. The leaks are related to a supplier that Airbus declines to identify. But Virilli says that after corrective action has been taken, the number of reports is down 50%.
And thirdly, the bleed system’s overheating detection has issued nuisance warnings that have caused some operational disruption. Airbus retrofitted a sensor connection using gold-plated connectors, and the issue has been eliminated. “We not only wanted to detect leaks but also where they were,” Evrard explains. “We probably went a little bit too far.”
Al Baker indicated in November that he is no longer happy with the aircraft’s dispatch reliability after being full of praise in the early phase of operations. He has not indentified exactly which issues have affected the on-time performance of Qatar’s A350 fleet. Virilli says “a combination of several factors” was affecting Qatar’s operations. and some have improved while others are still being addressed. Airbus says the overall situation has stabilized.
Meanwhile, Finnair has become the first European A350 operator. The airline took delivery of three aircraft by the beginning of January and expects to receive another four in both 2016 and 2017. Finnair is already operating the A350 at very high utilization. The aircraft are allocated to three Asian routes on which they daily fly 15 hr. (Beijing), 18 hr. (Shanghai) and more than 20 hr. (Bangkok). Every other week, they are taken out of service for a day of maintenance. “We are flying our long-haul aircraft more than any other airline in the world,” says Finnair Chief Operating Officer Ville Iho. “For the A350, there is no extra buffer built into the operation.”
In spite of the ambitious schedule, Finnair has not yet had to cancel an A350 service. It has had departure delays, but Iho notes that because the A350 is a relatively fast aircraft, if it loses time at a departure airport, it can recover the time en route. In many cases, the aircraft has actually returned to Helsinki early, even after taking off later than planned in Asia.
According to Iho, Finnair has experienced “the expected amount of small technical issues that can typically be addressed by resetting the system.” Rather than a clear pattern, there have been “isolated things here and there,” he says, adding, “I would have expected more of those.” However, Finnair has noticed a slightly higher use of spare parts in the cabin.
The carrier prepared meticulously for the A30 service entry since the aircraft forms the backbone of its business model. As a growing carrier in the Europe-Asia market, it is making the most of the geographic location of its Helsinki hub, which is essentially underneath the great-circle routes from Europe to most Asian destinations. “We knew as a company that this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing for Finnair,” Iho says. “It was a huge project and still is an ongoing companywide effort.”
Among other things, Finnair seconded its lead A350-introduction manager to Airbus for three years to enable him to work closely with the aircraft-maker. He returned to the airline to prepare first delivery.
Iho points out that the customer feedback has been “amazing” so far. On the flip side, Finnair now feels pressure to phase out its older A340s as quickly as possible because they are no longer perceived as having a competitive cabin. The last old-configuration A340 will only be used as a spare aircraft starting in March and will be phased out soon afterward. Finnair will return four younger A340s to Airbus later when it receives more A350s.
For Airbus, however, challenges remain. In some ways, 2016 will be even more difficult as it must deliver initial A350s to eight new customers, including Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Singapore Airlines, SriLankan Airlines and Thai Airways, as well as two European carriers (Air Caraibes and Lufthansa) and one African airline (Ethiopian Airlines). Delivering this many so-called “heads of versions” puts enormous strain on the organization during final assembly. Seat and lavatory supplier Zodiac has also not yet recovered A350-related production, which may cause disruption and delays. For example, Singapore Airlines now expects to take delivery of its first A350 on March 2, some weeks later than initially planned.
This article was first published on 19 January 2016