* A350-1000 to compete with Boeing's popular 777
* Airbus considers A350-2000 as Boeing goes bigger
* FACTBOX on A350-1000 maiden flight:
(Updates with plane landing, adds further detail)
By Tim Hepher and Johanna Decosse
TOULOUSE, France, Nov 24 Europe's largest
twin-engined passenger jet, the Airbus A350-1000, took
to the skies for the first time on Thursday, seeking to grab the
spotlight from Boeing's popular 777.
The lightweight carbon-fibre plane, 7 metres longer and able
to carry 40 more people than A350s already in service, began a
three-hour debut flight at 0942 GMT, watched by some of the
airline bosses who have invested in the $356 million jet.
It later returned to base after a 4 hour and 20 minute
flight during which co-pilot Frank Chapman said it had performed
"smoothly", similar to its sister plane the A350-900.
The 366-seat A350-1000 is designed to break Boeing's
virtual monopoly in the lucrative "mini-jumbo" segment,
typically involving large twin-engined jets carrying 350 people.
It is larger than the new-generation A350-900, which entered
service last year. Both are built from similar advanced
materials to Boeing's mid-sized 787 Dreamliner in a race between
planemakers for fuel savings and better passenger comfort.
The aircraft involved in Thursday's Toulouse debut is one of
three test planes facing 1,600 hours of intensive flight testing
before the A350-1000 enters service in the second half of 2017.
Fabrice Bregier, chief executive of the planemaking division
of Airbus Group, told Reuters he was confident the A350-1000
would be delivered on time to launch customer Qatar Airways.
"It makes me very happy and very proud. We are flying
according to the timetable we had planned," he said moments
after the jet, weighing 230 tonnes, took off under leaden skies
to applause from factory workers.
GRAPPLING WITH OTHER DELAYS
Bregier added he had grown more confident of reaching this
year's target of at least 50 A350-900 deliveries. 11
While the first flight of its latest model took place on
time, Airbus is grappling with delivery delays to the A350-900,
clusters of which remain dotted around the airport in Toulouse,
France, due to shortages of cabin equipment.
Smaller A320neo jets are also parked with missing engines,
due to delays in supplies from Pratt & Whitney, highlighting the
strain on the industry of adding new technology while securing
record production targets.
Airbus programmes chief Didier Evrard said the planemaker
continued to scrutinise its suppliers, notably France's Zodiac
Aerospace, which said this week it was on a path to
recovery following a production crisis at its factories.
Asked about the progress displayed by cabin and other
suppliers for the A350 family, Evrard told Reuters: "It has
improved, but it is not where it should be and we are watching
them very carefully."
He said the planemaker was working hard to achieve the
target of 50 A350-900 deliveries this year, having reached 34 so
far, with a further plane due to be delivered later on Thursday.
"I have already cancelled my holidays," he added.
Airbus says the A350-1000 will be 25 percent cheaper to
operate than the competing Boeing 777-300ER, an older aircraft
which weighs more but which has more seats in some layouts.
Boeing has responded to the A350-1000 by developing an even
larger version of 777 able to seat over 400 people, making it
the largest twin-engined jet when it enters service in 2020.
Airbus is also considering whether to go up in size with a
further stretch of the A350, but senior marketing vice president
Francois Caudron said it did not currently deem this necessary.
Industry sources say Airbus is nonetheless offering the
potential "A350-2000" to influential buyers including Singapore
Airlines and British Airways.
Such a jet would need an enhancement of the Rolls-Royce
Trent XWB engine that powers the A350-1000, already one
of the industry's largest with a fan case large enough to
swallow the fuselage of the now defunct Concorde.
Chris Young, programmes director at the embattled UK engine
manufacturer, which is in the midst of restructuring, said it
would always be ready if needed to upgrade its engines or add
new ones according to the needs of airplane manufacturers.
(Reporting by Tim Hepher, Johanna Decorse; Editing by Sudip
Kar-Gupta and Mark Potter)