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Tue, May 09, 2006

The A350 -- A Tale Of Two Airplanes

Is Redesign The Best Move... Or The Only One?

It was a revolution of sorts -- two of the biggest aircraft customers in the world, demanding Airbus make major changes to its upcoming A350, or reconcile itself to a microscopic share of the midsized passenger jet market.

But, after strong words from the likes of some of its largest customers -- including Dubai-based carrier Emirates and aircraft lessors ILFC and GECAS -- two months ago, Airbus began to consider a significant redesign of the upcoming A350 medium range widebody airliner, in order to better position the aircraft against its Boeing competitor, the 787.

Such a redesign would, of course, pose several questions for Airbus... questions that have likely kept the higher-ups in Toulouse up nights. One of those questions is: might such a redesign -- which would further delay the A350's entry into the marketplace -- ultimately prove to be better or worse than launching a less-than-optimum design on time?

One published report Monday said Airbus is preparing to announce a series of sweeping changes to the A350 -- including, most significantly, widening the plane's fuselage cross section. Such a major redesign would represent the first change to Airbus's single-deck-widebody fuselage cross section in the company's history. A larger composite wing and more powerful engines would also be part of the deal -- which, if true, Airbus would announce this summer.

Citing unnamed sources, the report says the new A350 family would be comprised of three planes: the A350-800, -900 and -1000, with commensurate increases in passenger capacity and range. That would certainly address at least one concern of potential customers: that the A350 as it stands now would be too much like the A330 of old -- which it is based off of -- albeit with more powerful engines and a new wing.

Those same company leaders voicing concern about the lack of something startlingly new in the A350, however, also talked about issues like weight. The Boeing 787, after all, incorporates a wide array of composite parts that greatly decrease the overall weight of the aircraft -- and, therefore, save fuel.

That raises another question: would a redesign of the A350 limited, essentially, to a selection of cabin configurations really address what Airbus's largest customers want most?

And we must also come back to the timeframe. Like we said, any changes to the A350 at this stage -- nearly two years after the original design was announced in December 2004 -- would result in further delay in scheduled deliveries of the new aircraft. The original design is set to launch in 2010... and at last count, 14 customers have ordered 182 planes that they, of course, would want on time. We can't imagine they'll be very happy to hear the news that their aircraft could be delayed at least another two years... to 2012.

But could that prove to be a nonissue? Another report -- this one from BusinessWeek -- reported stock prices in Airbus parent company EADS rose Monday, buoyed on the news that investment banking firm Merrill-Lynch had raised the company's rating to "buy" from "neutral" based on the news Airbus will -- you guessed it -- launch the upgraded A350 program this summer. The rating had been downgraded after news of the disquieted customers.

"We believe that Airbus will launch an all-new A350 this summer," the report said, "leapfrogging the Boeing 787."

So, could the new and improved A350 -- if it indeed comes to fruition -- leapfrog its American competitor? And would that new plane be revolutionary enough to offset the fact the 787 will have already been flying for revenue customers nearly four years before such a plane enters service?

To date, Boeing has garnered sales to 26 customers for over 350 787s, a design the market has indicated Boeing got right the first time. So far, the 787 program has avoided significant delays... meaning as it stands now, those customers will also be getting their planes when they were originally told.

Then again, there's the old adage that says, "when in doubt... wait." Considering that the next delivery slot for Boeing's 787 (above) isn't until 2011 -- only one year before a redesigned A350 would likely start flying –- a time-consuming redesign of the A350 could actually prove to be a very smart move by Airbus.

Its current customers might be happier to wait for a more competitive aircraft... new customers wouldn't really have to wait much longer for the new plane than they would for the original A350, or a new 787... AND customers who have signed on the dotted line for a 787 in that time might wind up gazing enviably upon those who stuck with the A350.

Stay tuned.

FMI: www.airbus.com

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