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France's Airbus A350 a hit on maiden flight

It will vie with Boeing in wide-body market

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PARIS -- Airbus sent a new wide-body plane into the skies Friday that sets the stage for intensifying competition with U.S. rival Boeing, with consequences for jobs, airlines' investments and the reputations of the powerful plane-makers.

After years of delays and a revamp that cost billions, the A350 cruised for four hours in partly cloudy skies above Toulouse in southern France. Most importantly, it landed safely.

There were ear-to-ear smiles -- and some sighs of relief -- among Airbus engineers and executives who helped the plane reach its maiden flight.

The flight marks a key step on the path to full certification for the jet, which can carry between 250 and 400 passengers and is the European aircraft-maker's best hope for catching up in a long-haul market dominated by Boeing's 777 and the 787, known as the Dreamliner.

"At the end of the day, you need to make it real, and this is the time for making it real. So I am very proud already," Didier Evrard, head of the A350 program, said while watching the flight.

With distinctive, upturned wing tips, the plane had a big "A350" painted across its belly, heightening anticipation it will fly at the Paris Air Show next week.

The plane's undercarriage stayed down for the first part of the flight so a series of checks could be run and ensure it was ready for the full trip.

Airbus has 613 orders for the A350 and hopes Friday's flight will bring it momentum heading into next week's Paris Air Show, which is shaping up as a battle of the wide-body planes.

More than half the twin-engine A350 consists of lightweight carbon-fibre designed to save on jet fuel, which incurs half the cost of long-haul flights.Airbus claims the A350 is 25 per cent more fuel-efficient than comparable planes.

The Toulouse-based company said the plane that flew on Friday will get a detailed inspection that will take two or three days before the plane flies for a second time. After that, it expects flight testing to take a little more than a year, Airbus president and CEO Fabrice Bregier said in a video released by the company. About 2,500 hours of flight testing are planned.

Boeing's list prices for its 787 line range from $206 million to $243 million. Airbus lists prices ranging from $254 million to $332 million, and had 613 orders as of May, compared with 890 orders for the 787. Steep discounts are common on large orders, although the details are rarely made public.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 15, 2013 B19

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