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Airbus Unveils Jet and Broadens Rivalry With Boeing

Airbus Unveils Jet and Broadens Rivalry With Boeing

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TOULOUSE, France — The A350 XWB, the first all-new commercial jet from Airbus in more than six years, took wing into partly cloudy skies here on Friday.

Bob Edme/Associated Press

Fabrice Brégier, chief executive of Airbus, with the test flight’s crew. The A350 is the company’s first new jetliner in more than six years.  

There was a lot more riding on it than the multinational crew of two test pilots and four engineers.

The new aircraft carries the burden of dispelling Airbus’s reputation for cross-cultural and industrial dysfunction, which caused costly delays in the introduction of the company’s previous plane, the A380 superjumbo. And in the wake of last year’s failed merger of the plane maker’s parent, European Aeronautic Defense and Space, and the British military contractor BAE Systems, Airbus is betting its future more heavily on the success of commercial jets like the A350.

It is no coincidence that Airbus showed off the A350 — a twin-engine wide-body jet meant to compete with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and 777 — as the global aviation industry assembled for the biennial Paris Air Show, scheduled to open Monday at Le Bourget Airport north of the French capital. As always at the show, which is the world’s largest aerospace bazaar, any announcements by other industry players will be undercard matches compared with the main event of Airbus vs. Boeing.

While both aircraft makers are going into the show with order books for commercial airliners fat enough to keep their assembly lines humming for much of the next decade, military budgets are shrinking in the United States and Europe, the two biggest spenders on military planes.

Few, if any, major announcements for military orders are expected at the show, and belt-tightening at the Pentagon means that the turnout of American military contractors will be among the lowest in recent memory. Northrop Grumman, for example, will be absent, and the delegations from Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing’s defense and security division, among others, will be much smaller than in years past.

And this year’s show may be relatively subdued in terms of new commercial jet order announcements as well, given the uncertain near-term outlook for airline profits and economic growth, particularly in emerging markets.

But on Friday the spotlight was on Toulouse-Blagnac Airport, about a 90-minute flight south of Paris, where, precisely at 10 a.m., the A350 lifted effortlessly from the sun-dappled runway. The purr of the plane’s two Rolls-Royce engines was momentarily drowned out by the cheers and whistles of a throng of Airbus employees, well-wishers and members of the news media who had gathered — camera phones at the ready — to capture the moment.

The distinctive curled tips of the carbon-fiber wings glinted briefly before the jet slipped into the clouds.

Judith Lindner, a 36-year-old quality control technician from an Airbus factory in Stade, Germany, whooped as the jet sailed past, jabbing her thumb in the air.

“What a tremendous thrill — fantastic,” Ms. Lindner said, adding that she had helped inspect the vertical stabilizer on the plane’s tail. “I feel such a mix of pride and relief.”

Analysts said the value of a well-timed and well-executed A350 debut could not be overestimated. Some said they still expected Airbus to try to maintain the public relations momentum by staging an A350 flyby sometime during the weeklong show in Paris.

It would be hard for Airbus to find a bigger stage. Show organizers said they expected the chalets and exhibition halls of the air show to be filled with more than 2,200 companies from more than 40 countries. As many as 350,000 visitors from the aerospace industry, as well as the public, are expected over the course of the week.

Even Boeing executives acknowledged that the timing of the A350 flight was likely to steal much of the American company’s thunder at the event.

“I know they work hard to keep the home fans entertained,” Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s head of marketing, said at a briefing on Tuesday in Paris.

Not so long ago, Airbus’s prospects did not look nearly as bright. It was struggling to roll out its last big-bet plane: the twin-deck A380. Miscommunication in the design, manufacturing and installation of electrical cables resulted in a series of missteps in the mid-2000s that delayed the A380’s first delivery by three years. The debacle prompted a management reshuffle in 2006 and more than $6 billion in losses.

Airbus executives say they are determined not to repeat the experience.

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