The fluctuating, decade-long journey from half-hearted tinkering to an all-new family of jets highlights a chess game still being played out as Airbus and Boeing battle each other in the wide-body market, valued at $1.9 trillion over 20 years.
In coming days the A350 will start competing with the 787 in the skies, having garnered 778 orders against 1.055 for rival Boeing 787.
To build the carbon-plastic jets, planemakers have tested themselves to the limit. But they have also carefully avoided a head-on collision, searching for pockets of empty space in the twinjet market by unveiling variants that rarely have precisely the same capacity as their competitor's.
Some analysts say that may help support their profit margins, though as the A350's story demonstrates, competition for sales is intense.
"I think they are now pretty well matched," said Steven Udvar-Hazy, who as CEO of lessor ILFC at the time was the world's biggest buyer of commercial jets and would prove to be an important influence on the A350s development.
A decade ago, air travel was changing. Planes with 2 engines were able to fly further, and proving more efficient than big jets with 4 engines.
Boeing's twin-engine 777 was beating Airbus's four-engine A340 in the market for big planes, and Airbus's huge four-engine A380, the biggest airliner ever, had yet to enter service.
Airbus was strong in the market for small wide-body jets, doing well with its twin-engine A330. But fast-growing airlines like Qatar and Emirates were demanding more comfortable cabins with space to install new lie-flat beds.
That might have suggested a new fuselage, a decision planemakers rarely take more than once every couple of decades.
But Airbus was behind in new materials technology, focused on finishing the A380, and hoarding resources to improve its most profitable cash cow, the A320 small jet, in case Boeing refreshed its 737 model, people familiar with the matter said.
Based on the article “Flying back on course: the inside story of the new Airbus A350 jet” published in Reuters.