20 November 2015, ©. Leeham Co: Emirates Airline CEO, Tim Clark, is quoted as having said “it takes them forever to get this thing up.” He was talking about the Airbus A350 production rate and his reasons for delaying Emirates’ decision on what to buy for the airlines medium range needs. Clark said Emirates wants more aircraft in operational use before they can evaluate the operational characteristics of the A350.
Emirates want to see at least 20 aircraft in operation and right now it is about seven to nine that fly every day. Actual deliveries stand at 10 with one month to go before the first anniversary when deliveries started (the first A350-900 was delivered to Qatar Airways on the 22 December 2014).
Looking at how many aircraft that are actually flying, one can agree with him. It seems actual production rate is more like one per month rather than the three to four a month that Airbus talked about at the first delivery ceremony.
So why is this? Is the production of A350 therefore in serious trouble? What is taking them so long? Has Emirates pointed to a weak part of the A350 program?
It’s all about where one looks
The undisputed fact is: right now the A350 delivery rate is about one aircraft per month. But this is at the end of a production pipeline which is over two years long. The production rate is all about at what point of this long timeline we put down our measurement stick.
The most demanding parts in terms of manufacturing time (the big machined castings in the aircraft’s structure) is entering the foundry well over two years before they enter the area that we can observe, the Final Assembly Line (FAL).
Dependent on where one places the measurement point, one will see widely different production rates. At the foundry for the big machined parts, it is now close to the ultimate production rate that Airbus presented as their first long term target, 10 a month. It has to be, otherwise there will be no 10 aircraft per month being produced in 2018 when the parts that these casting shall form part of come to the FAL.
If one looks at the production rate further up the pipe, it gradually reduces to finally being one aircraft per month, which rolls off the FAL. If one stops at the entry into the FAL, the present load rate is at three aircraft per month, close to the three-to-four aircraft that Airbus forecasted last December.
What Airbus actually talked about was FAL entry rate, not delivery rate. It means that the A350 is not widely off the rates that Airbus has been forecasting. Is everything then fine and dandy? No, there are problems, one being the widely different FAL production time that aircraft have dependent on the customer.
The demanding Qatar Airway’s aircraft take on average one year to flow through the FAL right now. This is far from the planned rate of around two months, which will be the ultimate rate once the FAL is in full swing somewhere around 2018, but it is also several months longer than other operators’ aircraft.
Lessor AerCap is the owner of the Vietnam Airlines aircraft, the second variant that was produced. The three aircraft delivered so far has on average taken 10.5 months to produce. Finnair’s first aircraft took nine months to get out the door. The next one seems to need around 10 months; it’s now days from delivery.
So why these widely different production times? The widebody OEMs have serious problems with cabin furnishing suppliers. This is the major factor behind the differences we see between operators. Those that go for cabins which are using parts from sub-suppliers, which can deliver at required speed and quality, can have their aircraft flow through the FAL at around 9-10 months.
Those operators which have specified interior suppliers that have problems keeping up with delivery time and quality get their aircraft delayed for months. Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier recently pointed at cabin interiors suppliers being the weak link in Airbus aim to deliver 15 aircraft this year and more than double that next year.
Is then the ramp of A350 slow? Lets compare with the other recent clean sheet twin aisle, the Boeing 787. Here we can’t look at deliveries as many of the first 15 aircraft (the terrible teens) are still not delivered. Looking at FAL load rate the A350 ramp is not slow. There were 10 series model 787 loaded into FAL during 2009 and they rolled off around 12-14 months later into storage, more or less complete.
The following year load rate was 17 aircraft and then 22. The load rate to FAL for A350 has increased much faster, last year (which was the first year of serial production FAL load) it was 14 and during 2015 this will about double. Next year we can expect it to exceed 50. So one cannot talk about a slow ramp, at least compared to the 787.