By Robert Wall and Andrea Rothman Bloomberg News
TOULOUSE, France — Airbus Chief Executive Officer Fabrice Bregier said he’s sticking with a goal of flying the A350 jet mid-year and that it represents “a lower risk approach” than the Boeing Co. 787 grounded by U.S. regulators.
While the A350 wide-body will use some of the technology now under scrutiny on the rival 787, including lithium-ion batteries, the Airbus model has significant variations including a “more traditional” electrical architecture, Bregier said.
“Our choices are slightly different,” the CEO told reporters at Airbus’s base in Toulouse, France. The A350, in one area of the jet, will use two batteries to the Dreamliner’s one, halving the power demand on each, and the supplier is different.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday grounded the 787 after All Nippon Airways Co. pilots made an emergency landing with a battery warning. That followed an on-ground fire on a Japan Airlines Co. plane in Boston on Jan. 7 also involving one of the lithium-ion cells made by Tokyo-based GS Yuasa Corp.
Airbus gets its batteries from Saft Groupe, based in Bagnolet, France, Tom Williams, executive vice president for programs, said in an interview. The battery has been subjected to “abuse testing” without a critical failure, he said.
Bregier said the cause of the 787’s difficulties isn’t yet fully understood, though the way the battery is incorporated in the plane may be the issue, rather than the equipment itself.
“We don’t see any reasons, at least until we get additional information, to change our design,” Bregier said of the A350.
To monitor the health of its batteries, Airbus tracks both their power draw and temperature, Williams said. It has also designed a system to quickly vent any gases outside the aircraft to reduce the risk of the fuel cell rupturing, he said.
Replacing lithium-ion batteries with more traditional nickel-cadmium versions would be difficult, Williams said. The older technology requires far more space and could be hard to accommodate in new aircraft designs.
Airbus will examine any safety stipulations that U.S. regulators impose on the 787 to see if changes to the A350 are required. The European Aviation Safety Agency, which will pass safety judgment on the A350 and has sought a role in the FAA’s review of the Dreamliner, will also be consulted, Williams said.
The design of the A350, which is due to enter service by the end of next year, has already been subject to an initial review by U.S. and European authorities.
The Dreamliner is more reliant on batteries than the A350, in part because of a decision not to draw electrical power from its engines. Airbus opted for a more traditional approach after deciding that the Boeing route would entail higher maintenance costs, outweighing fuel savings.
“We concluded we didn’t want to go in that direction,” said John Leahy, Airbus’s sales chief, who does not expect to gain a significant commercial benefit from the 787’s travails.
“I don’t believe that anyone’s going to switch from one airplane type to another because there’s a maintenance issue,” Leahy said. “Boeing will get this sorted out.”
The A350 itself is on track, with two aircraft built, one to be used on the ground to assess the airframe and the other the first test plane, CEO Bregier said. There are, though, concerns about program-management issues at Spirit Aerosystems Holding — maker of a 65-foot fuselage section for the jet.
Airbus is working closely with the company, which took $590 million in charges in 2012 related to difficulties in developing parts for more than one new plane, he said. Spun off from Boeing in 2005, Spirit is a supplier to all of the U.S. company’s jets and is also working on Bombardier Inc.’s CSeries narrow-body.
Wichita-based Spirit is only one of a series of suppliers, including some owned by Airbus such as Premium Aerotech in Germany, to face challenges during A350 development, he added.
Bregier said Airbus isn’t concerned about last year relinquishing its position as the No. 1 maker of civil aircraft to Chicago-based Boeing after nine years on top, and that in a duopoly the title will naturally move back and forth.
“In a year when we did better than what we expected at the beginning we can be satisfied,” the CEO said. Airbus last year achieved a record output of 588 planes against 601 for Boeing.
Airbus expects to book about 700 orders in 2013, bolstering the backlog in a year when it should deliver slightly more than 600 planes, including 25 A380, sales chief Leahy said.
The company also aims to win 25 superjumbo sales after securing only nine against a target of 30 last year, and is in talks over new orders and top-ups to existing ones, it said.