Airbus launches assembly line for fuel-saving A350 plane
Airbus inaugurated an assembly line Tuesday for its new A350 jets, which the European manufacturer hopes will break Boeing's domination of the long-haul passenger aircraft market.
A German newspaper report due out on Wednesday suggested meanwhile that funds for the A350 expected from Berlin might be held up pending the resolution of questions about work on the plane and future projects to be done in Germany.
Airbus has become a symbol of European excellence and shows that "France and Europe can succeed in international competition," French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said at the ceremony that opened the 74,000 square-metre (800,000 square-foot) facility outside the southwestern city of Toulouse.
The A350XWB (extra wide body), which Airbus expects to begin delivering in 2014, will "allow us to capture fifty percent of the long-haul aircraft market," forecast the company's chief executive Fabrice Bregier.
Airbus has dethroned Boeing in the medium-haul segment, but the American manufacturer still dominates the long-range market with its 747, 777 and new 787 Dreamliner.
The A350XWB will complete Airbus' long-haul stable, which includes the A380 super jumbo and the A330.
Originally based on the two-engine A330, the A350XWB will make extensive use of composite materials to lower weight and deliver fuel economy, much like Boeing's 787.
More than half of the Airbus aircraft will be made of composite materials.
The A350XWB will be somewhat larger than its competitor, and carry up to 350 passengers whereas the 787 can transport up to 290 people.
Ayrault also took the opportunity to praise the strategy of Airbus' parent company EADS, despite the collapse of its plans to merge with British defence manufacturer BAE Systems.
The French prime minister told EADS chief Tom Enders, who is German: "I have complete confidence in the strategy of the group you lead, and I wish you good luck and success in all the projects you undertake."
The BAE tie-up, which would have created the top aerospace and defence company and given EADS the prospect of better access to the US market, was scuttled by Germany earlier this month due to fears the country might lose manufacturing sites.
It was a clear example of tension in relations between Germany and France, the two biggest eurozone economies.
The German daily Handelsblatt said in its edition to appear on Wednesday that Berlin had rejected calls by Ayrault for Germany to respect its financial commitments to the A350 programme, pending agreement on issues related to manufacturing and research jobs.
"For reasons of budgetary law, this financial commitment is accompanied by clear expectations," the newspaper quoted a German finance ministry source as saying.
"The Airbus company must respect its commitment and reinforce and expand production, research and development in German plants in the current and future programmes," the source added.
The German government has frozen the payment of an instalment of aid for the A350 worth 600 million euros ($778 million), from a total of 1.1 billion euros, while Britain and France have each put 1.1 billion euros at Airbus' disposal for the programme, Handelsblatt reported last week.
Ayrault said on Tuesday that it was "essential that commitments were fully respected," before adding: "France, for its part, will respect its own."
© 2012 AFP