History of the A350

The A350 is an aircraft that is already shaping and will continue to shape the future of long haul travel for decades to come. With the future of the 747 and A380 looking slim, as both aircraft are now considered less efficient and too big for the current market, doubts have also been cast on the 777X and A330neo in terms of sales. The A350 has fast become a flagship aircraft for large airlines across the globe (such as Qatar Airways, British Airways and Delta). But how did this ground-breaking aircraft come to be?


A Lufthansa A350 landing – Source: @chris_aviation | AviationHub365

The A350 was born out of a need to compete with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. But back in the early 2000s, Airbus wasn’t all that concerned by the Boeing company’s latest proposition. They were hedging their bets on the A380, an all-new, double-decker, wide-body aircraft that had been Airbus’ ambition to produce since development began in 1988. Airbus believed a hub and spoke model of flying was the future. Which would see all passengers connecting through one hub airport and a large, high-density aircraft would be needed to connect two hub airports, versus just connecting small airports with direct, low demand flights. As orders racked up for the 787, however, it became abundantly clear to Airbus that they would need to produce a competitor. And fast.

Initially, the A350 was nothing like we know it today. Airbus’ initial concept was purely just an A330 fuselage with updated wings, control surfaces and engines. It was nowhere near the generation-defining aircraft we know it as today. Still, despite all that, it was lined up to be the launch engine for the General Electric GENX engine, a revolutionary jet engine that we later saw on the Boeing 787 and 747-8. Qatar Airways signed up to be the launch customer, placing an order for 60 aircraft in June 2005, with a set introduction into service in 2010.

Initial A350 Concept

Initial A350 concept – Source: @airbus

Despite the initial interest Emirates and Singapore Airlines, as well as the aircraft leasing firms ILFC and GECAS, publicly stated that they weren’t impressed with what Airbus had put forward. Instead, the airlines expressed the opinion that Airbus should have gone the whole 9 yards and designed a completely new airliner. And with that, it was back to the drawing board.

In July 2006, at the Farnborough Air show, it was time to show off the new revolutionary aircraft that Airbus had been working on. The Airbus A350 XWB was announced, the XWB name stood for eXtra Wide Body, there to show off the fact that Airbus had listened to their customers and designed a whole new fuselage. The A350 came in 3 variants, the A350-900 was the first variant, typically seating 325 passengers. The A350-1000 was the second, with an extended fuselage and could seat between 350 and 410 passengers. The third variant, the A350-800, was a shortened version of the -900 which remained undeveloped due to lack of demand and was scrapped entirely.

Within four days of that announcement of the all-new aircraft, Singapore Airlines had placed an order for 20 A350 XWB aircraft, with options for 20 more. At the time Emirates ordered 70 of the aircraft in 2007 before cancelling their order in 2014. However, five years later in 2019, Emirates finally ordered A350s once more while renegotiating their outstanding orders for the iconic A380.

The A350 was designed with composites in mind, opting to feature large carbon fibre panels for the main fuselage skin, with aluminium used for the aircraft structure. Rolls-Royce was signed on to provide a whole new variant of their Trent line-up of engines, named the Trent XWB.

The A350 XWB’s maiden flight took place on the 14th of June 2013, where it flew for 4 hours at Mach 0.80, reaching a height of 25,000 feet. After undergoing extensive testing, the A350 received type certification from the EASA in September 2014, having been approved for ETOPS 370 operations, meaning that it can safely fly for 6 hours and 10 minutes away from the nearest airport, allowing it to fly almost anywhere on earth. The first commercial flight took place with Qatar Airways on the 22nd of December 2014, over ten years after development began, between Doha and Frankfurt.


A350-1000 in house colours – Source: @planespotting_by_nick

By far the most exciting future endeavours for the A350 is in the form of Ultra-Long Haul travel. The world’s longest flight, a direct flight between Singapore and New York operated by Singapore Airlines is operated by the A350-900ULR, a modified version of the A350-900 that allows it to carry 24,000 litres more of fuel than a typical A350 and enables the aircraft to have a range of 9,700 miles. This puts the A350 right into the crosshairs of Qantas – the Australian airline has been aspiring to operate Ultra-Long Haul for a while, connecting Australia to New York, London and Paris, through their very own Project Sunrise. To achieve this, Qantas challenged both Airbus and Boeing to put forward an aircraft that can comfortably make some of the longest passenger flights on planet earth. Boeing put forward the 777X, Airbus put forward the A350-1000, and Airbus won! While in the current climate (COVID-19), Project Sunrise has been put on hold, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has assured that the project is still going ahead.

As of the 27th of June 2020, the A350 has received 930 orders. These orders are split 760 for the -900 variant and 170 for the -1000 variant. Furthermore, as of 31st of May 2020, 366 A350s have been delivered to an extensive range of customers which include Virgin Atlantic, Lufthansa and Cathay Pacific. The future of the A350 is bright, with potential for the aircraft to be stretched further or a new engine offer (neo) to be offered from the mid-2020s. For now, though Airbus will continue to upgrade and further improve its current options.

Daniel Smith

Daniel Smith is a student who lives in London, England. He is a Flight Sergeant in the RAF Air Cadets who also enjoys photographing aircraft in his spare time. Daniel is interested in the history and politics of aviation as well as the engineering behind the aircraft that we take for granted in the modern world!

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