World's newest airliner gets star treatment during international tour

Thom Patterson, CNNUpdated 15th July 2015
Atlanta (CNN) — Parked inside a giant hangar on the fringes of an Atlanta airport sits an airliner that's getting the star treatment. Sure, the Stones are touring this summer. So are Taylor Swift and One Direction. But for aviation enthusiasts in Brazil, Colombia and the United States, this tour is even better. Welcome to the "A350XWB Tour."
The Airbus A350XWB (for extra-wide body) is the world's newest family of innovative jetliners. This one is touring the Americas, as the French-based aircraft manufacturer shows off its new generation of ultra-efficient planes.
In the coming decades, more and more travelers will be boarding these kinds of lightweight airliners that fly long distances and burn less fuel. Passengers will be enjoying wider, quieter cabins with more headroom and more comfortable cabin pressure.
Plus, these planes just look cool.
This week, the A350 tour came to the world's busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, where the sleek, gray, black and white airplane ruled over Bay 10 at Delta Air Lines' TechOps facility.
The invitation-only event included aviation industry journalists and news reporters. Even some enamored Delta employees lined up for a rare chance to get on board. The public will get its opportunity next week, when the plane visits the gigantic AirVenture airshow in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Some fans were following the event via Twitter and clearly loving it.
I admit it: stepping onto the plane through the rear door kind of felt like venturing backstage at a concert. We were met in the galley by an entourage of crew members and company officials who were more than happy to talk about the band -- I mean, the airplane.
Now, don't get me wrong. This ain't no party.
Some serious engineering is happening here. During test flights, technicians sit in special monitoring stations in the cabin where they analyze data. A few days earlier during a stop in Bogota, the plane's pilots performed 13 takeoffs and landings to gather enough data to prove to aviation officials that the plane's auto-landing feature will work reliably at high-altitude airports.
"It's definitely a preparation visit as much as it is just showing off the product to the people who bought it," said Mike Bausor, Airbus' A350XWB marketing director.
Airport crews in Bogota and Atlanta greeted the plane with water cannon salutes. "It's always great when we go to a new airport for the first time," said Airbus test pilot Frank Chapman. "People are excited, waiting for us there with their cameras, taking photos."
The A350's wings sweep back like an Olympic swimmer poised on the starting block. The plane's curly, carbon fiber wingtips have become one of its signature features, bending upward in a dramatic, 14-foot swoop.
"It's like Nike decided to enter the airplane manufacturing business," joked one observer on Reddit.
The wingtip design lets the plane cut through the air more efficiently, saving fuel.
In fact, instead of aluminum, most of the plane's wings and fuselage are made of carbon fiber composite material, making these kinds of planes so lightweight they can fly much farther on a single load of fuel.
During the cruise phase of a flight, pilots can save even more fuel by changing the shape of the A350's wings. Pilots are able to shift specific flaps on the A350's wings without changing the wing's entire shape. "That is unique to the A350," said Bausor.
Next we walked through the main cabin, where the airliner coach seats were arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration. Each seat had its own snazzy fourth generation in-flight HD entertainment system.
The two-class layout also included a business class with seats that lay fully flat into a 73.5-inch bed. Depending on the model and configuration, total capacity for the A350 is more than 300 passengers.
Delta, which plans to buy 25 A350-900s, is still in the process of deciding its specific cabin configuration.
During an opportune moment, I asked Chapman to let me peek inside the cockpit. Once inside, it kind of felt like I'd talked my way into Taylor Swift's dressing room. Thrilling to be sure, but sorry, no. Not sexy. A trio of crew were discussing the A350's latest test run.
The A350 is part of a new breed of airliners that aims to open new long-distance, nonstop routes that were traditionally too unprofitable for old-style planes.
For example, Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner has allowed British Airways to launch a nine-hour, nonstop between Austin, Texas, and London. United flies its 787s on a 12.5-hour nonstop route bridging San Francisco and Chengdu, in central China far from the coast.
Next year, travelers departing from the United States will have a chance to experience the A350 when Qatar Airways begins flying it to Doha from New York and Boston. Those routes, more than 6,500 miles long, will provide the first proving ground as to whether this plane will live up to its billing. Airbus says the plane's 900 model has a maximum range of about 8,900 miles.
Later, American Airlines will be the first North American carrier to fly the A350 because of a deal that predated its merger with US Airways. United plans to fly the A350 as well. Delta's A350s are expected to start being delivered in 2017, helping to replace the fleet's fuel-guzzling 747s.
But can a beautiful beast like the A350 land elegantly at a small airport such as the one at Oshkosh? No problem, said Chapman, who, in 2009, landed there piloting a double-decker A380, the world's largest airliner.
"The biggest issue is going to be with all those small airplanes, bringing the aircraft around on the ground," he said. "The tractor driver who's going to tow us around -- he's got a job-and-a-half."
So, the A350XWB Tour may not be as flashy as this summer's One Direction concerts, but it definitely will thrill America's aviation geeks.