Air New Zealand has taken delivery of the first of its A321neo aircraft from Airbus, which is being prepared to start transtasman flights at the end of the month. When you're buying a plane with a list price of $190 million, it has to be just right. Francois Obe is marketing director for the A350 but the process for all planes is much the same. He explained to the Herald how Airbus and airline clients work through aircraft acceptance.
The process starts well before the plane is finished.
Customers are invited to all of the planemaker's manufacturing sites to inspect all the individual sections and sub-assemblies before they are mounted on the final assembly line.
About eight months before delivery, customers are invited to inspect all areas that might be closed in for good.
''It's important that the customer feels part of this,'' says Obe.
Customers are given about a month's notice of an aircraft being ready, and then it's time for the acceptance process.
For A350s, that process lasts for six to eight days, very often over a weekend which allows a buffer in case there is any extra workload and action to be undertaken on the aircraft.
On the first day of the acceptance process there is a meeting between seven to 12 Airbus specialists and a team from the airline.
Airbus hands over to the customer the whole production history of the aircraft before its maiden flight.
The members from the Airbus team and airline customer then pair up to inspect the internal and external parts of the aircraft. Other Airbus technical support staff will sit in the cockpit and check the systems.
The customer puts pieces of green tape on places where they believe there has been a non-conformity or a quality snag.
These items are loaded into a database and Airbus mechanics and engineers move through all the snags one by one and fix them overnight, says Obe.
They are usually minor. For example, it could be a painting anomaly such as the head of a screw that needs touching up. A quality manager comes by and the customer is invited to make sure the item is fixed. There can also be software anomalies that need to be ironed out.
Any technical items must be sorted out before the aircraft is allowed to depart from Toulouse or Hamburg.
Obe says on the second day, the engines are started at the gate.
At the Toulouse delivery centre, engines can be taken up to 70 per cent of maximum power in idle mode and after that, engine cowlings are opened up and checked to make sure there is no seepage of any sort.
Next comes the customer check flight. It is flown by an Airbus pilot but they sit in the first officer's seat.
''By courtesy, Airbus invites the customer airline pilot to sit in the pilot position. However it is the Airbus pilot who holds the side stick because it is, in that stage of the delivery process, Airbus property.''
The check flight takes up to four hours. ''I would not advise you to go on this flight because it is really bumpy," says Obe. "They go through ups and downs, high altitude sharp banking turns, diving down from high altitude. It is quite impressive indeed.''
During the flight the cabin is artificially depressurised to make sure all the oxygen masks are triggered. Depressurisation can also expose other flaws such as the way textile is glued to the floor.
The test plane will also do a last-minute go-around from the airport, climbing at full throttle. Once it has landed, the engines are checked again.
When the transfer of title (much like the title to a house) occurs, the plane is handed over. Airbus changes its temporary registration to that of the airline, and satellite systems operators are informed of the new identity of the latest plane that will be connected to those systems.
Obe says airlines make down payments at various stages of the aeroplane's construction, with just the final instalment paid on the last day. Negotiated discounts for any flaws are rare - faults are fixed, or in some cases an agreement is made to fix them at a later date.
On the day of transfer, Airbus contract managers, customers, financiers and lawyers all convene in a room at the delivery centre.
"When everyone is happy and the checklist is perfect and all documents put together, there is a clear sentence 'are you happy to release the funds?' to a bank somewhere in the world.''
Airbus checks the right amount has been transferred into its bank account, right down to the ''very last cent''.
Once that is settled, says Obe, ''there is nothing preventing us from opening a little bottle of champagne, maybe two of them.''