Taking to the skies


The first innovative A350 XWB aircraft are ready to join the Finnair fleet. We visit the Airbus factory in Toulouse, France, for a behind the scenes tour of production.

Like all his Airbus colleagues Alan Pardoe, Head of Marketing Communications for Airbus, exudes genuine, almost boyish corporate pride as he leads the way into the company’s aircraft mock-up hall, close to Toulouse Airport. Full-size wingless body replicas occupy the hall, alongside demonstration models and cutaway displays—an oversized playground for any aviation freak.

We are here to see the new Airbus A350 XWB (Extra Wide Body). Finnair is the first European airline to launch this aviation design flagship, leading a pack of 40 airlines that had placed 774 orders for the A350 as of July 2015. The first of Finnair’s 19 new fleet members are being delivered this autumn. 

Air transport is forecast to double in the next 15 years. The Airbus A350s are a sustainable response to this demand as well as to the needs of customer comfort. 

“We have enough orders to fill the factory for nine years. That’s a wonderful thing to have for any industry,” says Pardoe.

Testing to extremes

In the same way that car drivers will feel at home with new models of brands they know and trust, aircraft pilots appreciate a degree of familiarity, not least in cockpit commonality. 

“With a small amount of training, pilots can find their way around different Airbus flight decks. We have spent a lot of time working on this commonality,” says Pardoe.

Testing processes are unrelentingly thorough, pushing the aircraft to extremes that it would almost certainly never encounter during actual commercial operations. “It might be flown close to the speed of sound during one test,” says Pardoe.

Investing in lightweight, strong, and aerodynamic composites is crucial for the A350. 

“Fifty-three percent of the fuselage and wings are made from composites, with titanium, aluminum, and steel accounting for most of the rest,” says Pardoe. “Using the right material for the right purpose in the right place – that’s what building aeroplanes is all about.”

Countdown to delivery

Pardoe leads the way to the final assembly line (FAL), which boasts facilities as state of the art as the planes it is designed to produce.

“Tail sections are from the Airbus plant in Spain, the wings are made in Wales, the fuselage in Germany, and all these major elements are brought to Toulouse on special Beluga transport aircraft,” says Matthew Lord, contracted through tour operator Manatour to guide visitors around the FAL. 

The countdown to delivery proceeds through a series of assembly stations. Final assembly is preceded at Station 59 by the installation in the fuselage of major elements, or ‘monuments’ as they are known.

Station 50 is where the final assembly begins in earnest, bringing together the three fuselage sections and adding the landing gear in the nose section. 

“After Station 50, the aircraft moves to Station 40 for fitting of stabilizers and wings. The fitting of the Rolls Royce engines is left as late as possible to restrict any movement of what is a very costly part of the aircraft,” says Lord.

Transparent cooperation

The aircraft moves on from Station 40 to Station 30 for fitting of furnishings and other equipment. “This is the part of the process where we check all the functionalities, including ground testing,” says Julien Wasier, Head of Station 30. 

“Transparency is something that Finnair are very keen on, so either side can say clearly if they have an issue. We’ve had good feedback and the guys from Finnair were happy,” says Jacques Peron, Head of Cabin Installation at Airbus. “Finnair was a dedicated customer from the beginning of the A350 program, but of course we’re working on A350s for other airlines. Ground testing is in good shape.”

After external tests on cabin pressure, communications, and fuel calibration are carried out, the aircraft is hand-painted using environmentally regulated polyurethane spray paints. 

Finally it arrives at Station 20 for the last fittings of cabin elements, such as in-flight entertainment and special seating as well as cockpit gear. After two and a half months of final assembly, it is now ready for its inaugural flight and delivery. Before long, the pioneering A350 will be a common sight on the apron of Helsinki Airport and the skies above Finland.

“We have spent lots of time on Airbus commonality,” says Alan Pardoe of Airbus.

Text by Tim Bird
Photos by Airbus and Tim Bird

A longer version of this article was originally published in Finnair's Blue Wings magazine (October 2015).


Published September 29, 2015

Category: Collaboration