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Airbus shows off new A350 at Singapore airshow as long-haul rivalry with Boeing heats up

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SINGAPORE - Airbus showed off its new wide-body A350 on Monday ahead of Asia's biggest airshow, signalling that the jet's delivery schedule is on track and stepping up its battle with Boeing for the lucrative long-haul market.

The European plane-maker gave reporters a look at the twin-engine A350 before it goes on display at the Singapore show starting Tuesday in its first public appearance since its debut flight in June last year. It will also join the show's flying display.

A little more than half of the jet is made of lightweight carbon fiber to make it lighter and more fuel efficient, a key consideration for airlines contending with volatile fuel prices.

The A350, which comes in three versions typically carrying 276 to 369 passengers and has a list price ranging from $254.3 million to $332.1 million, will allow Airbus to step up competition in the long-haul market dominated by Boeing's 777 and 787 jets.

Airbus has received 814 orders for the A350 so far, with 30 per cent coming from Asian airlines such as Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines. The region is a crucial market for plane makers because its economic growth is driving rapid expansion of jet fleets.

Airbus hopes to woo buyers by showing off the plane to trade visitors on the show's first two days. Visitors won't see a plane with a completed passenger cabin because it's still outfitted with monitoring equipment used in ongoing testing.

The A350 presents an alternative to Boeing's 787, which also make extensive use of carbon fiber but suffered from teething problems last year. Lightweight lithium-ion batteries that caught fire on some planes were the highest profile problem. Airbus opted to abandon using the same type of battery on the A350 after the fires forced authorities to ground the 787 fleet for more than a month.

"Airbus has learned a lot from the 787 Dreamliner's unfortunate problems since its launch. This is the plane for the next decade and beyond," said Shukor Yusof, an airline analyst at Standard & Poor's.

He predicted that Asian and Middle East carriers would place more orders over the next two years because of the plane's fuel efficiency, advanced design, long range and cheap operating and maintenance costs.

"If you're the CEO of an airline and you've seen the problems that airlines have had with their 787s, you'd seriously have to consider the A350."

Airbus promises that passengers will benefit from larger windows, bigger storage bins, better air quality and mood lighting in the cabin.

"At the end of the day our airplanes are judged by their efficiency but also by how much the customer enjoys it," said Fernando Alonso, senior vice-president for flight testing.

The airplane's appearance in Singapore is a strong sign it's on schedule to start deliveries to airline customers in the second half of the year. Airbus hopes to complete certification by the third quarter. Alonso said the plane is expected to go into service with launch customer Qatar Airways in the final quarter.

Airbus engineers say they've been testing the airplane under extreme conditions as part of the certification process.

This year they flew the plane to La Paz, Bolivia for high altitude testing and then to Iqualit in northern Canada for cold weather trials in temperatures as low as minus 28 degrees Celsius. In May, they will put it in a climate simulator at McKinley Air Force Base in Florida, to test it in even more extreme temperatures.

"I'm very confident we'll be able to certify the airplane as planned and be able to deliver the airplane by end of year," Alonso said.

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Follow Kelvin Chan at twitter.com/chanman

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