Why The Airbus A350 Was The Make It Or Break It Aircraft For Airbus

Exactly 6 years ago, on June 14th, 2013, the Airbus A350 made its first flight.

On that day, everyone at Airbus was generally anxious – the Airbus A350 will either lift the company up or, if unsuccessful, would spiral Airbus into a slow failure.

At the beginning of the day, the workers at Toulouse watching the first Airbus A350 flight live and the people at other Airbus manufacturing sites watching live streams were nervously waiting for the lift-off of the A350.

At the end of the day, a collective sigh of relief could probably be heard all over Europe.

But why? Why was the Airbus A350 so important to the company?

In short, wide-body aircraft.

On a longer note, let’s try to understand the at-the-time situation at Airbus, the wide-body market and how did it all turn out, 6 years later.

The Airbus A350 similarities with the Boeing 737 MAX

Ironically, just like Boeing had a huge headache with the Airbus A320neo in 2011, so did Airbus with the Boeing 787. Initially, Airbus thought that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner would go head-to-head with the Airbus A330, but as time went on, Airbus realized that they needed a response to the Dreamliner.

In addition, Airbus was already investing a lot of money into the Airbus A380, as Airbus saw a gap in the very large aircraft market. The Airbus A380 recorded its first test flight in 2005. A year earlier, in a private meeting with various airlines, Airbus CEO Noël Forgeard announced a new model that did not have a name at the time.

The new model was supposed to complement the existing A330. A new aircraft would be dubbed the A330-200 Lite and promise an increased range – the fuselage would stay the same, meaning no extra passengers would be seated on the aircraft. But the 787 promised to do everything better than the A330 Lite – more range, more passengers and most importantly, it was more economical due to the new engines and materials used on the frame.

Anyhow, airlines initially were not very keen – Airbus received limited attention to its new project, as customers wanted something new and better than the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A330. If Airbus wanted to beat Boeing in the twin-engine long-haul aircraft market, it would need something revolutionary to sway airlines from ordering the Dreamliner.

And an A330 Lite was not the solution.

Airbus was back to the drawing board under a difficult time – the A380 had its own fair share of production issues and the aviation sector was facing a downturn. But Airbus had to do something, as Boeing was dominating the industry at the time.

Drawing the wide-body market

In the late '90s to early 2000s when Airbus announced the A350 for the first time in 2004, the commercial aviation looked quite different from what it is today.

Boeing was clearly ahead of Airbus, as it had several wide-body jets out at the time – 747, 767 and the 777.

Meanwhile, Airbus had the A300, A310, A330 and the A340.

In addition, you had the tri-jet wide-bodies at the time – the DC-10 and the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

But the tri-jets were nearing their expiration date and Boeing absorbed McDonnell Douglas, including all of their aircraft, as McDonnell Douglas was heavily struggling with the repercussions from their decision to release the MD-11 with three engines. At a time when everyone in the aviation industry started to tilt towards twin-engine configurations, someone had to be the stubborn guy, right?