PARIS — Airbus sent a new wide-body plane into the skies Friday that sets the stage for intensifying competition with U.S. rival Boeing - with consequences for jobs, airlines' investments and the reputations of the powerful plane makers.
After years of delays and a revamp that cost billions, the A350 cruised for four hours in partly cloudy skies above Toulouse in southern France.
Most importantly, it then landed safely.
It met ear-to-ear smiles - and some sighs of relief - among the Airbus engineers and executives who helped the plane reach its maiden journey.
The flight marks a key step on the path to full certification for the jet, which can carry between 250 and 400 passengers and is the European aircraft-maker's best hope for catching up in a long-haul market dominated by Boeing's 777 and the 787, known as the Dreamliner.
"At the end of the day you need to make it real, and this is the time for making it real. So I am very proud already," Didier Evrard, head of the A350 program, said while watching the flight.
"But I will be still nervous until it comes back."
Airspace over Toulouse, where Airbus has its headquarters, closed for both take-off and landing. With distinctive, upturned wing tips, the plane had a great big "A350" painted across its belly, heightening anticipation that it will fly at the Paris Air Show next week.
The plane's undercarriage remained down for the first part of the flight, so that they could run through a series of checks and ensure it was ready for the full flight.
Airbus has 613 orders for the A350, and hopes Friday's flight will bring it momentum heading into next week's Paris Air Show, which is already shaping up as a battle of the wide-body planes.
"There is a lot of money at stake, a lot of employment at stake. This is an extremely important political, social and economic issue," said Gerald Feldzer, a French aviation expert and former airline pilot.
Airbus' potential customers, the world's airlines, have all been squeezed by high aviation fuel costs and a fall in passengers because of the struggling world economy. Carriers are therefore looking for ways to run their fleets more cost-effectively.
More than half of the twin-engine A350 consists of lightweight carbon-fiber designed to save on jet fuel, which makes up half the cost of long-haul flights.
Airbus claims the A350 is 25 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable planes.
The A350, which was delayed for two years as Airbus hashed out a new design, is a competitor to the 787 - minus the lithium ion batteries now under investigation for unexplained smoldering. Airbus abandoned its plans to use the lithium ion batteries despite their advantages in weight, power and re-charging speed.
"The A350 has the same innovations more or less as the Dreamliner, the 787," said Feldzer. "The same amount or proportion of carbon for the lightness of the material, just as many electrical devices."
Boeing's list prices for its 787 line range from $206 million to $243 million. Airbus lists prices ranging from $254 million to $332 million, and had 613 orders as of May, compared with 890 orders for the 787. Steep discounts are common on large orders, although the details are rarely made public.
The initial A350 program was scrapped and redesigned after customers criticized it. Development of the plane was held up by management disputes and financial troubles at Airbus early on.