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Airbus A350 set for maiden flight

Lightweight airliner takes to the air just days before air industry’s shop window opens at Le Bourget

THE NEW Airbus A350 plane is due to take off on its much-anticipated maiden flight today at 10.00, a milestone for an aircraft the firm hopes will help close the gap with rival Boeing in the lucrative long-haul market.

Weather permitting, the next-generation plane will lift off from Toulouse-Blagnac Airport with six people on board – a British and a French test pilot, a flight engineer and three other engineers at the back.

No flight plan was announced for the flight, which could last up to four hours and will largely be over the south of France. Live video coverage of the flight is available at www.A350xwbFirstFlight.com

More than half of the long-haul plane is made of composite materials and the test flight comes just days ahead of the air show at Le Bourget, outside Paris, where Boeing and Airbus traditionally vie for the spotlight over plane orders.

"All recent programmes 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.

Powered by twin Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, 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. It will be able to fly 15,000km without stops.

Despite dethroning Boeing in the medium-hall segment, Airbus still needs to catch up with its rival in the long-range market, where the US 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.

The test flight may cast a big shadow over Boeing at Le Bourget, with the air industry’s shop window opening on Sunday.

The US 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.

And even if today’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."

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