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Paint job but no 'rollout' party for newest Airbus jet

The vertical tail wing of the first Airbus A350 is seen on the final assembly line in Toulouse, southwestern France, October 23,2012. REUTER
The vertical tail wing of the first Airbus A350 is seen on the final assembly line in Toulouse, southwestern France, October 23,2012. REUTER

By Tim Hepher

LONDON (Reuters) - Airbus has started painting the A350, a sign it is approaching a maiden flight, but has bowed to the industry's increasingly pragmatic mood by deciding against a traditional "rollout" for its newest jet.

Eight years after European leaders witnessed a spectacle worthy of stadium opera to launch the A380 superjumbo, Europe's latest aeronautical venture will prepare to leave the nest with less fanfare in an industry sobered by delays and technical mishaps.

The first coat of paint in Airbus livery should be ready on the A350 next week, people familiar with the project say.

After that, the high-tech carbon-composite jet will be all dressed up with nowhere to go until the first flight, which most industry sources expect in late June or early July.

The lack of pomp reflects growing emphasis on project "execution" after Airbus, Boeing and other manufacturers endured multiple delays and problems culminating in the three-month grounding of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner earlier this year.

Asked recently whether Airbus would hold an A350 rollout ceremony, Airbus Chief Executive Fabrice Bregier told Reuters, "Probably not. We'll go straight to our first flight."

The flight's timing may disappoint enthusiasts hoping to see the jet, developed at an estimated $15 billion, at the Paris air show on June 17-23.

Bregier has said he will not be tied to PR deadlines after slowing the project to weed out any glitches. Airbus says the A350 will enter service on time, however, in mid-2014.

The CSeries jet, rolled out by Canada's Bombardier in March, is also expected to miss the Paris show, which is likely to be dominated by a return of popular Russian fighter displays.

ROLLOUTS 'DEVALUED'

For years, aerospace manufacturers have vied to produce lavish rollouts to show off their latest creations.

The showbiz end of the industry is seen as an important step in the marketing of a new plane, demonstrating to airline buyers and aerospace investors that an aircraft's metamorphosis from designer's imagination to real flying machine is complete.

Airbus and Boeing threw giant parties for the A380 superjumbo and 787 Dreamliner, but the celebrations turned into a costly hangover when both projects were later delayed. Boeing was criticized for displaying a partially completed shell.

"The rollout concept perhaps became a bit devalued by the presentation of an empty 787 with the wrong fasteners and no cockpit," said Agency Partners analyst Nick Cunningham.

"Historically, rollouts have been a great way of raising the profile of a new airliner. But it is understandable if Airbus feels that a first flight event can serve that purpose more effectively," said Andrew Doyle, Editor of Flight Daily News.

With Airbus already describing the A350 schedule as "challenging", the company is also seen as wary of giving customers the impression it is being distracted - having held an inauguration for the A350 assembly plant just six months ago.

The outspoken chief executive of Qatar Airways, the jet's launch customer, has criticized Airbus and Boeing over delays and said this week the 787 grounding had cost it $200 million.

Shares in Airbus parent EADS rose 1.3 percent to 41.25 euros on Wednesday, outperforming European markets, having risen 38 percent so far this year.

RBC Capital Markets analyst Rob Stallard said in a note that the stock price would be sensitive to "any incremental news on the A350 development".

Airbus is expected to hold media briefings in early June.

RAZZLE DAZZLE

Here are some bashes that won't be repeated for the A350.

Feb 1987 - Britain's Prince Charles and Princess Diana pour champagne over the nose of the A320 at a Valentine's Day debut.

April 1994 - Boeing commissions entertainer Dick Clark to stage a Hollywood-style show for its 777 wide-body jet under 1.5 million watts of theatrical lighting - 16 times in total.

July 2007 - Boeing throws a party for 15,000 guests as it unveils the world's first mainly carbon-fiber jetliner, the 787.

Sept 2007 - Russia allows foreign civilians into its ultra-secret Sukhoi fighter factory for the rollout of the first post-Soviet jetliner, the Superjet, flanked by dozens of models.

June 2008 - King Juan Carlos of Spain, a trained pilot, lends royal glamour to the Airbus A400M rollout in Seville.

Feb 2011 - Airline bosses and workers don Boeing-supplied sunglasses indoors to watch a revamped jumbo, the 747-8, appear in a surprise new orange and red "sunrise livery".

March 2013 - Canada's Bombardier, which is challenging the Airbus and Boeing duopoly in small jets, lifts the curtain on its $3.4 billion CSeries plane bathed in blue light and dry ice.

(Additional reporting by Karen Jacobs; Editing by Will Waterman)

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