While the aircraft, MSN216, is yet to be painted, it does feature the words “Singapore Airlines First To Fly” on the fuselage alongside a “A350XWB Ultra Long Range” logo.
Powered by two Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines, the A350-900ULR took off from Airbus’s headquarters at Toulouse, France a little after 1030 local time on Monday.
It headed south-east, flying mostly over the Mediterranean Sea before returning to Toulouse, where the flightcrew conducted a go-around before landing at about 1530.
Airbus Commercial Aircraft president Guillaume Faury said on Twitter that the A350-900ULR was “pushing the boundaries like no other aircraft has before”.
We’re all very proud to see the Ultra Long Range #A350 XWB pushing the boundaries like no other aircraft has before. More than ever, the A350 XWB remains the aircraft of choice for non-stop trans-Pacific and long-haul operations. We're connecting people around the globe. https://t.co/IZEyUpDMPe
— Guillaume Faury (@GuillaumeFaury) April 23, 2018
The aircraft is also a contender for Qantas’s demanding Project Sunrise requirement for an aircraft capable of operating nonstop flights from Sydney to London and New York by 2022.
The A350-900ULR will allow Singapore Airlines, which has ordered seven of the type, to resume the world’s longest passenger service in nonstop Singapore-New York flights in the second half of 2018. The 8,285nm route was suspended in 2013 when when high fuel prices made it uneconomical with Airbus A340-500s.
Airbus head of A350 marketing Marisa Lucas-Ugena said the flight test program for the A350-900ULR was focused on the aircraft’s modified fuel system, which increases the fuel carrying capacity by 24,000 litres (from 141,000 litres to 165,000 litres) over the standard A350-900 without the need for additional fuel tanks.
While there are no changes to the size of the centre fuel tank, modifications to the layout of the piping and valves within has allowed for the increase in fuel carrying capacity.
There is also a performance improvement package with larger winglets, a slight twist to the wing compared with the standard A350-900, as well as changes to the flap fairing and belly fairing.
The A350-900ULR’s higher maximum takeoff weight of 280 tonnes also has to be certified.
The flight test program is expected to take a few weeks.
Airbus has not published seating data for the the A350-900ULR, stating only the long-range variant was capable of flying more than 20 hours and had a range of up to 9,700nm based on a “typical high premium cabin”.
“Obviously, the range is dependent on many things and of course and it depends on the payload conditions that you want to carry,” Lucas-Ugena told Australian Aviation in an interview from Toulouse on Monday.
“For these type of flights we count on a very, very high premium configuration normally.”
By comparison, the Airbus website states the standard A350-900 has a range of 8,100nm with “typical seating” for 325 passengers.
Lucas-Ugena said the modifications being tested and certified on the A350-900ULR would be available on future deliveries of the A350-900, such as the higher maximum takeoff weight and new wing twist and larger winglets.
The A350-900ULR’s short flight test program will not require any ultra long flights, given route proving flights by the standard A350-900 in 2014 already included very long sectors such as Johannesburg to Sydney and Auckland to Santiago.
Singapore Airlines has 67 A350 family aircraft on order, comprising 60 standard A350-900s and the seven A350-900ULRs. At March 31 it had taken delivery of 21 A350-900s, according to the Airbus website.
The airline is the only customer for the ultra long-range variant. The A350 program, which comprises the -900, -900ULR and -1000, has secured 854 firm orders from 45 customers, Airbus said.
Lucas-Ugena said the A350 family of aircraft offered airlines the ability to do a variety of missions, including the ultra long-haul market, with the same type.
“We are not after a market in particular,” she said.
“What we are offering our customers is the possibility, the flexibility, to go into that market with lower risk, with an airplane that is extremely efficient, extremely comfortable, very well suited for doing these types of flights.
“We know that not everybody is interested, it is not a big market, but there is some market and if that market can be covered with the same airplane that you have for covering the big part of your long-haul network, that is a fantastic versatility that this family is offering.”
Currently, Qantas operates the world’s second-longest nonstop passenger flight. The airline’s Perth-London Heathrow service (7,829nm) operated by Boeing 787-9s commenced on March 24. Qatar Airways’ Auckland-Doha nonstop flight tops the list at 7,848nm.
The A350-900ULR is up against the still-in-development Boeing 777-8X for Qantas’s Project Sunrise requirement.
It is understood Qantas is seeking an aircraft capable of carrying 300 passengers in both directions on both the New York and London routes, with a request for proposal expected some time in 2019.
Asked what the gap was between Qantas’s Project Sunrise requirements and the capability of the A350-900ULR, Lucas-Ugena said: “That is up to Qantas to say.”
“I guess the only thing we could say is what they make public which is that desire to fly that leg between Sydney and London and Sydney and New York,” Lucas-Ugena said.
“Of course, what Qantas, like any other airline, would like as well, is to have the right level of comfort for the passengers and the right level of efficiency so that they can really carry on with this flight.
“It’s the performance, but also the comfort and the efficiency of the airplane and we are better suited than anybody to offer that with the A350 family.”
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said recently Project Sunrise provided the airline an opportunity for new thinking in terms of passenger amenities for these ultra long haul services, including exercise areas and sleeping berths.
“Could some of the freight areas that we may not be able to use be used as an exercise area? Could they be used for berths for people to sleep in? What are the out there ideas that could apply to this and really change air travel for the future,” Joyce told guests at Aviation Club of the UK lunch in London on March 27.
“And nothing, nothing is off the table.”
Airbus aircraft interiors marketing director Florent Petteni noted the A350 family of aircraft featured technologies designed with ultra long-haul travel in mind, such as the quietness of the cabin, full LED lighting designed to help reduce the impact of jetlag, a fully dark cabin, as well as an air-conditioning and active humidification system that reduces draft while still renewing the air inside the cabin every two-three minutes.
“They will benefit from the A350 platform, which is recognised as one of the most comfortable that is currently flying in the sky in the twin-aisle family,” Petteni said.
Petteni said ideas around using the cargo areas for passenger activities was about being able to have a “fourth activity” on board the aircraft alongside eating, sleeping and watching video content/reading.
“What you have to keep in mind is the fact that those ULR flights, those nonstop flights, they will be in competition with the one-stop flight,” Petteni said.
“Passengers will have the choice either to stop somewhere midway or to take the ULR flight. Passengers who stop halfway they have a place where they can stretch, they have a place where they can chat, they can have coffee and do other things.”
“This is why people are looking into a fourth activity, be it stretching, be it a social area, be it a place where the passengers can benefit from this fourth activity.”
Combining a range of up to 9,700 nautical miles and the highest level of passenger comfort, the Ultra Long Range #A350 XWB opens the way for the world’s very longest flights, with unbeatable economics. pic.twitter.com/FiWTkuKxnj
— Airbus (@Airbus) April 23, 2018