Korea is major buyer from Airbus

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Korea is major buyer from Airbus

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Airbus employees assemble a A350 XWB aircraft at a plant in Toulouse, France, on Thursday. [NEWSIS]

TOULOUSE, France - It’s not difficult to find Airbus’ headquarters once you get off the hour-long flight south from Paris to Toulouse. Not surprisingly, the company’s home is right near Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

Korea’s relationship with the global aircraft manufacturer dates back to 1974 when Korean Air Lines (KAL), the nation’s flag carrier, first ordered its A300B4. Since then, KAL and its smaller rival, Asiana Airlines, have ordered a total of 126 aircraft from Airbus.

While KAL has ordered 72 aircraft (32 A300s, 30 A330s, and 10 A380s), Asiana, the nation’s second-largest carrier, has recently been an aggressive customer of Airbus as it signed a deal to purchase 30 A350 XWBs in 2008 and six A380s in 2011.

Asiana will operate its first A380 aircraft, the world’s largest double-deck jumbo jet, from this June after its paint job was finished in Airbus’ Hamburg factory last week.

Although its operation of A380s is behind KAL, Asiana will become the first local airline from 2017 to fly the A350XWB. KAL hasn’t ordered any of that model.

So far, the affiliate of Kumho Asiana Group has ordered all models of the A350 XWB family of aircraft with eight A350-800s, 12 A350-900s and 10 A350-1000s. The A350-800 offers 276 seats while the A350-900 and the A350-1000 offer 315 and 369 seats, respectively.

Airbus is pinning its hopes on the A350 XWB. The manufacturer calls it “an all-new family of midsize wide-body airliners to shape the efficiency of medium-to-long haul airline operations.”

It is a hit model for Airbus, which has received 824 A350 XWB orders from 40 customers. Qatar Airways is the largest buyer with 80 orders and will be the first airline to operate the aircraft late this year. Asiana is the eighth-largest customer for the A350 XWB with 30 orders.

Airbus promotes the A350 XWB as “the right aircraft” for Asian air carriers in their fast-growing markets.

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An Airbus A350 XWB aircraft. Provided by the company

“Air traffic will double in the next 15 years,” said Claude Debeauquenne, a marketing director at Airbus. “The beauty of this industry is that it is a growing industry.”

According to data from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and Airbus, the Asia-Pacific region’s revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) - which is calculated by multiplying the number of paying passengers by the distance traveled - is expected to account for 34 percent of the world’s RPK in 2032, the largest of any region.

Airbus officials seem to have high expectations for the A350 XWB, claiming that it will send a knockout punch to rival Boeing because it will replace the 787 or the B777.

According to the company, the A350 XWB, equipped with the next-generation Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, provides a 25 percent step-change in fuel efficiency compared with the 777, and is six percent better compared with the 787.

Fifty-three percent of the A350 XWB’s airframe is made from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers (CFRP), including Airbus’ first carbon-fiber fuselage. This also helps lower maintenance costs, providing a seat-mile cost advantage of 25 percent compared with the 777, and one around eight percent better compared with the 787, according to Airbus.

“Carbon fiber is light, and there is less corrosion or fatigue,” said A350 XWB Marketing Director Mike Bausor. “Boeing is trying to catching up with the 777X, but this is coming onto the market in 2020, and we are going to be ahead of it.”

The A350 XWB also has a roomier cabin than the 787 and, with up to 35 more seats, it offers a potential revenue advantage of 10 percent or more.

Bausor said that airlines like Asiana, which is to operate both the A380 and A350 XWB, will have large advantages because the two aircraft are “complementary” because the latter could be used in new or growing routes.

The A350 XWB, which costs around $300 million, has a long-range capability of up to 15,580 kilometers (9,680 miles), which is just 120 kilometers shorter than the A380. But with one aircraft available in three different sizes, Airbus claims that airlines can match their A350 XWB fleets to route capacity demands. Pilots can fly all three versions with the same certification.

For the A350 XWB, Airbus has invested a lot in its final assembly line (FAL) in Toulouse. The company invested 140 million euros to complete the construction of the new facility in 2011. Its FAL is the “greenest” ever built by the company. Unlike other manufacturing plants, what visitors to the FAL in Toulouse first notice is that the place is bright and clean.

Airbus says natural lighting is used as extensively as possible in the aircraft halls to improve working conditions.

“Our roof has 22,000 square meters [236,806 square feet] of photovoltaic solar panels that produce more than 50 percent of the electricity for the building,” said Bausor.

Airbus said that the 350 XWB’s final assembly line reduces production time compared to other programs and allows for more effective test schemes.

The landing systems are installed in parallel with the assembly of the fuselage, wings and tail, along with the first step in the cabin installation operations. Function tests can therefore start earlier on the A350 XWB than for other models, the company said.

When the A350 XWB production reaches full capacity, the complete process - from the beginning of final assembly through to delivery to the customer - takes two and a half months, which saves 30 percent of the time compared to other programs, according to Airbus.

The A350 XWB parts arrive at the FAL in Toulouse from various places in Europe, including Getafe, Spain, Bremen and Hamburg, Germany, and Nantes, France. The parts are all fitted out and tested, reducing the amount of work required on the systems before coming into the FAL.

At first thought, it seems aircraft manufacturing would be more efficient if all parts manufacturing and assembly facilities were near the FAL in Toulouse, but Airbus officials say they would need too much space to accommodate all those facilities. Creating jobs in other regions is another issue.

“Aircraft are meant to fly, and by flying from and to Airbus production sites, we can also conduct tests in the air,” said Sean Lee, Airbus’ communication director for Asia. “It also helps building relationships outside the region.”

The multinational aspect of the production now reaches Korea. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) supplies wing ribs for the A350 XWB, while KAL’s aerospace division also delivers cargo doors.

BY JOO KYUNG-DON [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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