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By Max Kingsley-Jones, Senior Consultant at Cirium Ascend Consultancy
After a flurry of orders in recent months, the Airbus A350 XWB has become the sixth twin-aisle type to break through the 1,000-orders mark. And while it will probably take another five years to convert all this business into revenue-earning deliveries, this is undoubtedly an important milestone for Toulouse in the history of a programme that had a somewhat bumpy start.
The A350 suffixed “XWB” (“Xtra Wide Body”), crystalized in 2006 as a clean-sheet design after several years of indecisiveness as Airbus struggled to establish a strategy to counter the fast-selling Boeing 787. This saw a series of planned A330 derivatives offered under the “A350” designation for which Airbus accumulated 100 firm orders during 2005-2006, according to data from Cirium Core. As these A350 “v1.0” orders fell by the wayside, some were migrated to the XWB version to support the launch of the all-new aircraft.
Chart 1: A350 XWB orderbook evolution
When Airbus relaunched the A350 in December 2006, two variants were offered – the baseline -900 and the now-defunct ultra-long-range -800 “shrink”. But Airbus accumulated over 180 orders for the smaller variant – including the first to be placed for the XWB in December 2006 – before quietly shelving it in 2013. Although many of these orders were cancelled, around half were migrated to other XWB variants. Airbus retained some of the cancelled XWB business by renegotiating the contracts into orders for the A330neo, which effectively replaced the A350-800 in the product line-up.
Notwithstanding that somewhat complex gestation, the A350 XWB has reached 1,000 net orders 18 years from launch, as illustrated in the chart 1 above (19 years if orders for the earlier A330-based version are counted). The chart identifies the arrival of the first -1000 orders in 2007 as well as the effect that the curtailment of the A350-800 had on total orders. To date, the A350-900 has proved to be the stronger seller, accounting for three-quarters of the entire orderbook at the end of June.
The orderbook stagnation between years eight and 11 (ie 2013-2016) highlights the slowdown that programmes often experience amid the transition from development into service-entry and when the delivery backlog extends into many years.
The effect the Airbus/Qatar Airways paint quality wrangle had on the A350 orderbook in recent years is evident, with the new A350F variant effectively offsetting the 23 -1000 orders that Airbus cancelled in 2021/2022 before reinstating them earlier this year.
The A350 has enjoyed a strong recovery in 2023 after the Qatar saga and the pandemic-induced slump in 2020-2022, with total orders rising by 11% from the end of last year to exceed 1,000 at the end of June. This has caused the backlog share of total orders to begin rising back towards 50%, from a low of 44% in 2022.
Chart 2: Twin-aisle 1,000 orders run-rate comparison
With 1,000 orders under its belt, the A350 joins a group of twin-aisles that includes the A330/A340 (and A330 alone), 747, 767, 777 and 787. The rate at which the A350 has reached 1,000 orders is comparable to several of its current peers, as shown in Chart 2 (above). The 777 also passed the milestone in 18 years, while it took the A330/A340 (which Airbus marketed as family) 19 years and the A330 alone 21 years. But no other twin-aisle has exhibited the sales pace achieved by the 787, which passed the 1,000-mark just a decade after launch and is now through 1,700 orders. The 777 and A330/A340 hold the crown for having exceeded 2,000 orders.
To date, Airbus has delivered 542 A350s. The latest Cirium Ascend long-term forecast estimates that total shipments will pass 1,000 in 2028, some 14 years after Qatar Airways received the first A350-900, in December 2014.
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