Boeing has a lot to prove at the Paris Air Show next week after Airbus showed off its new A350 in Toulouse Friday.
"They need to go out there and be aggressive about new product development," said Richard Aboulafia, analyst with the Teal Group.
The A350 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.
"I am very proud already," Didier Evrard, head of the A350 program, said while watching the flight.
"Boeing by contrast, in the past few months, has seemed preoccupied by the 787, by shareholder relations and all those other things, and has fallen asleep in terms of launching new planes, so they have to get back in that game," said Aboulafia.
Airbus has 613 orders for the A350, and hopes Friday's flight will bring it momentum heading into the air show.
The A350, which was delayed for two years as Airbus hashed out a new design, is a competitor to the 787 - minus the lithium ion batteries now under investigation for unexplained smoldering. Airbus abandoned its plans to use the lithium ion batteries despite their advantages in weight, power and re-charging speed.
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 initial A350 program was scrapped and redesigned after customers criticized it. Development of the plane was held up by management disputes and financial troubles at Airbus early on.
But Boeing faced its own delays and problems with the 787, and analysts say Airbus is now trying to position itself as the airplane manufacturer that can get the job done.
"Boeing has the broader product line, but they are still struggling under the shadows of the 787 nightmare and they seem unenthusiastic about launching new products," said Aboulafia. "Airbus has its chance to show themselves as the opposite of that."
The A350 will compete against larger versions of Boeing's new 787, but is also aimed at Boeing's 777-300ER, which has been a runaway hit with airlines. The original 777 design is aging - it first flew in 1994. Airbus said that eight out of 10 customers for the 777-300 ER have ordered A350s. U.S. customers for the A350 include United Continental Holdings Inc. and Hawaiian Airlines.
The biggest A350 will carry roughly 350 passengers, slightly fewer than a 777-300ER. Planes like that are generally used on long-haul international flights. Those planes have turned out to be popular with airlines who want large aircraft - but not superjumbos like the Airbus A380 or Boeing's new 747-8i. Sales of those two giants have been disappointing.
Boeing is considering whether to build a new version of its 777, now called the 777X, which would boost fuel efficiency with new carbon-fiber wings and new engines. Boeing is widely expected to announce a final decision about building the 777 at next week's Paris Air Show.
A year ago, at the Paris Air Show's sister event in Britain, Boeing beat Airbus for the number of orders announced. The two companies vie closely each year for the title of world's biggest plane maker, and the race is as tight as ever.
AP Airlines Writers Scott Mayerowitz in New York, Joshua Freed in Minneapolis, and Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this report.
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