Next generation Airbus takes to the skies

Airbus's next-generation A350 plane takes off from Toulouse-Blagnac airport. (AFP)

Airbus's next-generation A350 plane takes off from Toulouse-Blagnac airport. (AFP)

The A350 is Airbus's first new model in almost a decade.

Even before it took to the skies, there were 613 firm orders for the mid-sized aircraft, which can fly up to 15 580km, making it capable of long-range flights.

However, although the aviation industry continues to grow – with passenger numbers doubling every 15 years – it is under pressure from the rising price of jet fuels, environmental concerns and aviation taxes looming on the horizon.

Airbus claims that its A350, with its Rolls-Royce XWB engine, is substantially more fuel efficient and environmentally friendly than other aircraft of the same size, making a pointed dig at its main competitor, Boeing.

Also, the fuselage is made from carbon fibre reinforced plastic, rather than metal, meaning that it weighs less and thus requires less fuel to fly.

However, the aircraft manufacturer has had its fingers burnt by innovation in the past: last year, it was discovered that there were hairline cracks in Airbus's A380 aircraft, specifically the wings.

The wings' ribs are made of a carbon-fibre and aluminium composite.

Dangers of innovation
At the time, Dr Tom Enders, Airbus' executive vice-president for programme, said: "No one had ever used carbon fibre for ribs before."

When asked this week about the dangers of innovating, Alan Pardoe, head of marketing and communications, said that the A380 incident had allowed the manufacturer to gain experience.

"In order to certificate an aeroplane, you have to do an enormous amount of testing. You do that based on prior experience. Because it is advancing so quickly, and so fast, sometimes the technology gets a little bit ahead of the testing."

He emphasised that the company had learnt from its A380 mistakes.

"The wing cracks in the A380 came about because of innovation to make the wings lighter, and it did ...
We were confident that we understood the materials and [that we] had chosen the right materials, but we found out the hard way that we didn't," Enders says.

"Innovation" is a buzz word at the company, which spends about €2-billion a year on research – some of which is done in South Africa.

It has signed framework agreements with the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, as well as the National Aerospace Centre based at Witwatersrand University.

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild

Sarah Wild is a multiaward-winning science journalist. She studied physics, electronics and English literature at Rhodes University in an effort to make herself unemployable. It didn't work and she now writes about particle physics, cosmology and everything in between.In 2012, she published her first full-length non-fiction book Searching African Skies: The Square Kilometre Array and South Africa's Quest to Hear the Songs of the Stars, and in 2013 she was named the best science journalist in Africa by Siemens in their 2013 Pan-African Profiles Awards. Read more from Sarah Wild

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