New aircraft is due to enter service with Qatar Airways before the end of this year
Europe's aviation regulator said on Tuesday it had awarded safety approval for theAirbus A350, completing the regulatory steps needed for the lightweight jet to start flying passengers.
The European Aviation Safety Agency said Airbus, the planemaking unit of Airbus Group, had demonstrated the airworthiness of its first mainly carbon-fibre jet during more than a year of flight trials and called it a "mature aircraft".
The version of the jet certified by EASA on Tuesday, the A350-900, is designed to seat 314 passengers and is due to enter service with Qatar Airways before the end of the year in direct competition with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner.
A larger model, the 350-seat A350-1000, which targets the "mini-jumbo" market occupied by the Boeing 777, is due to enter service in 2017 after a separate safety certification process.
Asked how long it would take to deliver the first jet to Qatar Airways, which recently delayed taking delivery of its first A380 in a dispute over cabin fittings, programme chief Didier Evrard said the first A350 was ready to start pre-delivery trials, but declined to give a precise estimate.
"It is a very cooperative phase with our customer and we are going to address it together," Evrard said.
"It will be before the end of the year for sure," he said, referring to the planemaker's target for first delivery. "It is a question of execution. There is no outstanding 'unknown'," he added.
Both Airbus and Boeing say their latest generation of long-distance mid-sized aircraft will cut fuel costs by at least 20 percent compared with traditional metallic aircraft.
The A350 is the result of eight years of design and development work costing an estimated $15 billion. It went through various changes as Airbus fought to counter its rival's traditional lead in deliveries of wide-body aircraft.
Airbus has sold 750 of the jets, worth $295 million to $340 million each at list prices, since its launch in 2006. That compares with 1,048 orders for the Dreamliner, which has been on the market longer, having been launched in 2004 and entered service in 2011.
Although the A350 is ready for service, it will not be able to fly on the longest oceanic routes for which it was designed until Airbus also receives clearance for extended operations, which Airbus executives expect within days or weeks.
A European safety official said the aircraft would be authorised to fly on virtually any world route.
Airbus is also waiting for certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, but question marks remain over how quickly and extensively the U.S. regulator will grant extended operations after problems with the entry to service of the 787.
The ability to fly long routes over water is determined by the amount of time an aircraft is allowed to operate on one engine in the event that the other engine fails.
Industry sources said Airbus had asked European authorities to clear the A350 to fly for up to 370 minutes on one engine, exceeding the so-called ETOPS limit of 330 minutes on the 787.