Singapore Airshow: Why companies showcase test planes

The Airbus A350 XWB development aircraft MSN3 at the Singapore airshow, Feb 2014 Image copyright Airbus
Image caption The Airbus A350 has been put up for full public display for the first time at the Singapore Airshow

You would think that when an aeroplane maker decided to put its latest aircraft on public display for the first time at an airshow, it would do so with a passenger cabin that is decked to impress.

After all, these events not only attract prospective customers but also a large number of future passengers - and not to mention the media that cover the sector.

However, Airbus has taken a different approach with the A350 - its latest extra wide-bodied plane - which it is showcasing for the first time at the Singapore Airshow.

The plane on display is a test aircraft with no cabin fittings, just a few seats for the test crew and lots of machines and monitoring equipment on board.

And, according to the firm, it's a move that has paid off.

"It is very rare that people get a chance to see what goes behind the scenes to get a plane ready to enter commercial service," says Simon Azar, marketing manager of twin-aisle planes at Airbus.

"Bringing a test aircraft here has given them that opportunity. Everyone who has entered the plane has been astonished and impressed by what they have seen."

Performance testing

And if you are a sucker for technology, which most people visiting such shows generally are, there is a lot to be impressed with.

The A350 aircraft on display is used to test the plane's performance during various flying conditions.

There is a section where the test flight engineer monitors a slew of data on multiple screens to access its reaction to different situations.

Another desk monitors the performance of the engine during these flights.

Right in the middle of the plane there are huge box fittings called the load benches.

Image copyright Airbus
Image caption Visitors to the Airbus A350 test aircraft were greeted by a lot of test and monitoring equipment

They are used to put extra load on the batteries - to simulate the levels generated in a commercial plane with in-flight entertainment systems, lights and other on-board gadgets being used - to gauge how the batteries would handle the load during a real flight.

And then there is the seemingly unending maze of wires.

In fact, if stretched out in a single straight line, the cables used to collect data on the test plane can cover a distance of nearly 400km.

Customer assurance

The A350 is set to enter commercial service in latter half of this year and the firm already has orders for more than 800 planes.

The airline says that displaying the test aircraft is also a way to show customers, both those who have ordered the plane and those who may potentially do so in the future, that it is on track to meet its commitments.

"It is an opportunity to show that we are progressing well with the testing and are on course to deliver the planes on time," says Mr Azar.

The first delivery of the firm's previous big launch, the A380, was delayed by nearly 18 months.

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Media captionA closer look at the Airbus A350 on display the Singapore Airshow

Analysts say that assuring customers that it can meet its delivery schedules is key for any aeroplane maker.

"When airlines order new planes, delivery schedules are a big factor," says Shivaji Das, an aviation analyst with consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

"And when it involves a plane that is yet to enter commercial service, it is very important for manufacturers to assure perspective buyers that it is on course to meet its targets.

"Airshows are the best place to show that to multiple buyers at the same time," he adds.

Airbus's rival Boeing had also previously displayed a 787 Dreamliner test aircraft at the Singapore Airshow.

Growing competition

The A350 is seen as a direct competitor to Boeing's Dreamliner and both the firms are eyeing the Asia-Pacific market.

"Asia-Pacific is the fastest growing market for aeroplanes and one of the most important ones for the A350," says Mr Azar.

In fact, 30% of orders for the A350 so far have come from customers based in the region.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Boeing has bet on the Dreamliner to be a key driver of its growth in the Asia-Pacific market

It also accounts for a substantial share of orders for the rival Dreamliner, and Boeing is displaying one of the planes operated by Qatar Airways at the event.

Both the firms have forecast that demand for planes in the region will continue to grow over the next two decades.

"It is pretty clear that Asia-Pacific is the key battleground for the Airbus and Boeing rivalry," says Mr Das.

"Whoever wins this front is likely to emerge as the overall winner."

It's not a surprise then that Airbus is using the A350 test aircraft to try to reassure potential buyers that it can meet their growing demand - and more importantly do so within the promised time period.