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Airbus starts up assembly line for new A350

The first test aircraft of Airbus' answer to the Boeing 787 began construction in France.

Airbus' giant Beluga cargo aircraft dropped off an A350 fuselage section at the company's French plant.

Airbus yesterday formally opened the assembly line of its next-generation A350 when it began final construction of the first test aircraft in Toulouse, France.

The center fuselage section, which arrived at the company's production facility in the belly of an A300-600T (aka the Beluga), can now be joined with the forward fuselage section already in place. Next to come will be the wings and aft fuselage, which are currently being built in plants in Germany and the United Kingdom

The first aircraft, MSN5000, will be used only for static testing on the ground. According to FlightBlogger's Jon Ostrower (he also has an excellent step-by-step account of the construction process), the first test aircraft to actually fly will begin final assembly in July.

Built of composite materials, the A350 is Airbus' answer to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which began commercial service late last year with ANA. As with its rival, the A350 is designed to be more fuel efficient and provide for greater passenger comfort for long-range flights.

But like the 787, the A350 has suffered from a series of production and design delays because of its radical new design and construction techniques. Though Airbus originally promised airline deliveries for 2010, the first production aircraft for launch customer Qatar Airways won't begin flying until 2013 at the earliest.