Airbus is set to release its newest variant of the popular composite wide-body, the Airbus A350 XWB; more specifically, the Airbus A350–1000 XWB, reportedly set to launch with long-time customer Qatar Airways of Doha. “Airbus has assured us we would receive our airplanes, though late, we will receive it before the end of the year”, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar al-Baker told reporters in Doha. (Reuters, August 2017). But how will the introduction of the A350–1000 differs from that of the smaller A350–800 and -900 versions? Will the handover of these new jets to airline customers come with similar challenges that the Boeing 787–8 Dreamliner saw in 2013?
What Makes The A350–1000 So Unique?
With the introduction of the Airbus A350–1000 XWB into regular passenger service, it will be the first dual-engined Airbus variant competing with Boeing’s bestselling wide-body, the Boeing 777. This marks the first time that Boeing has seen a direct competitor in the dual-engine market (notwithstanding the Airbus A340 being classified as a quad-engine aircraft). With this said, Airbus once competed with Boeing’s 777–200 variant with the A340, but as new advancements in the 777X program have emerged, so too has Boeing’s grip on the larger wide-body dual-engine market.
In addition to the A350–1000 being the first aircraft to directly compete with the Boeing 777–300ER, having, until recently, only competed with the much less efficient Airbus A380 or Boeing 747s. In addition, Airbus has put considerable effort into cabin outfittings, onboard comfort, and environmental impact via the specific use of composites throughout the aircraft. This is evident in the numerous studies conducted by both Airbus and various third parties examining the aircraft’s latest advancements from other composite-based aircraft; some notable examples being the Boeing 737MAX, 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’ own A320neo, A330neo and A350 series of aircraft.
Seeing The Change In Maintenance & Operations
With any new aircraft coming into revenue service one can expect that anomalies and operational issues may be experienced during the first months of operation. Although the A350–1000 isn’t the first A350 series of aircraft to reach the public market, we can still expect to see changes in how maintenance repair personnel operate on a larger variant of this series. This could range from relatively minor changes in repairing carbon monolithic structures and non-destructive inspection procedures to major tasks like repairing or replacing entire structural sections in the event of catastrophic damage.
As has been proven time and again, composites require additional attention to detail when undergoing scheduled or sudden repairs to the structures and components. Coupled with the larger wing and fuselage sections, and further composite components of the aircraft, operators and maintenance providers will need to completely understand the precise composite materials and technical processes involved in the makeup of this particular aircraft structure. This, in turn, will require additional training for maintenance personnel in order to provide the technical knowledge and practical skills necessary to work and communicate effectively both as an individual and member of a maintenance team.
Overall, the introduction of the A350–1000 showcases just how much we have learned after over 100 years of flying and it’s no secret that the design and development of aircraft structures will continue to exploit the advantages of highly advanced composite-based components and parts. With that being said, the number of aircraft in commission built prior to 2008 still significantly outnumber the amount of aircraft with these advanced composite structures, such as those being developed today. This indicates that operators and maintenance professionals will need to understand the methods involved in repairing both the old aluminum/titanium aircraft, as well as the newer advanced composite-based aircraft, in order to remain competitive in the market.
“The future of the global aerospace composite materials market looks attractive with opportunities in commercial aircraft, regional aircraft, general aviation, helicopter, military aircraft and others. The global aerospace composites materials market is expected to reach an estimated $3.9 billion by 2022 and is forecast to grow at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 5.3% from 2017 to 2022…North America is expected to remain the largest region during the forecast period due to the high demand for newer aircraft and the ongoing replacement of an ageing fleet.” (Digital Journal, Sept. 2017)
Forecast For Supply and Demand
While the world’s fleet still primarily consists of older aircraft (an average of 16.5 years in service, many of which will likely need to be retired/ decommissioned within the next five years), the insurgence of composite structures and technologies in the newer aircraft will do more toward the longevity of the fleet than has ever been possible. Operators and passengers continue to extol the latest composite advancements and their financial benefits to the market, with operators, in particular, reaping the benefits of lower operating costs with composite-built aircraft. For airline operators and maintenance providers looking to stay competitive in the developing market, this will mean the efficient adaptation of new technologies and the pursuit of advanced technical training for skilled technicians and team supervisors alike.