Toulouse, France, on a sultry July afternoon. Cathay Pacific’s latest purchase gleams on the tarmac at the Airbus Delivery Centre, a special part of the huge manufacturing complex abutting the city’s airport.
B-LQA, a brand new A350-900, is the centre of attention today, providing a memorable backdrop for a fortunate group of VIPs assembled to welcome the new aircraft. This group includes nine of the airline’s most frequent flyers and their companions, who are being thanked for their loyalty with the exclusive experience of a delivery flight – taking the brand new aircraft home to Hong Kong.
The Delivery Centre is where airlines check all is well before flying their new plane home. It’s been 10 days since B-LQA was towed here. During that time, a team from across Cathay Pacific has been poring over her in exacting detail – checking that the build, fixtures and fittings are up to standard.
She has been put through her paces in the air too. Flight Technical Officer Ian McClelland was dispatched to Toulouse to check all the flight deck systems and embark on a four-hour flight. ‘We go up to altitude and check the operation of the aircraft in the air,’ he says. ‘We look at the backup of the safety systems and items like engine thrust rating and landing gear retraction times. There are some items that we don’t do because we have a lot of people on board, such as depressurising.’
But it’s still a bumpy ride for the cabin engineers who have to strap in for manoeuvres that are ‘outside the normal passenger regime’, including a dive and the deployment of the oxygen masks.
Those strapped in for the ride include people like Technical Services Engineer Chit-lam Li and Senior Cabin Programme Engineer Katie Man, who says: ‘The first two to three days are the most important for us.’
Armed with a checklist, tape measure and torch, the team inspect every aspect of the cabin. If the team spots a snag, they log it and mark it with green tape. Airbus personnel then attend to it overnight. By the fourth day the team will start the ‘buy-back’, which means they are checking the items that Airbus has repaired. ‘If the cabin is clear of green tags then the defects are done,’ says Li.
It’s a tight schedule and hard work. Man says: ‘In Business Class, the seats have so many functions, so there are a lot of things to check. Although Premium Economy is smaller, there are still a lot of seat functions, and you have to do everything manually. It’s like being at the gym!’
With so many moving parts, teams of personnel and a strict deadline, there needs to be a central point of command. For Cathay Pacific that person is Airbus Onsite Manager Clive Montgomery. He has seen and certified many of the semi-assembled pieces of the aircraft before they were joined together on the FAL – the giant Final Assembly Line.
A month before, he began the paperwork to trigger everything – from requesting flight crew to perform Cathay Pacific’s own test flights, to getting flight and cabin crew rostered to operate the delivery flight, to making sure all the statutory and regulatory requirements have been met. This includes notifying the financial planning team that there will be a hefty debit appearing in the company finances when all parties are satisfied, and to put them on standby to transfer the very significant funds.
One crucial bit of paperwork can only be done after Cathay Pacific officially owns the plane. ‘Once all the certificates are available – and there are many – we file for a Russian overflight permit,’ says Montgomery. ‘No Russian permit, no flight.’
Montgomery has also been organising the catering and items needed for the flight. ‘In the case of a VIP flight like this everything has to be shipped in. This is very involved: the Hong Kong menu and equipment teams come to support this as well,’ he says.
So has it been worthwhile? If the faces of the VIP guests are anything to go by, absolutely.
These are Marco Polo Club members who fly more than once a week, so you might expect them to be jaded – but here they are fascinated and intrigued, especially following the morning’s factory visit.
And while there is no First Class cabin on the A350-900, guests were treated to Business Class dining options and wines sourced from Bordeaux served by cabin crew who are just as excited to be part of the delivery team.
‘This is my first time on a delivery flight and I’m super excited – I couldn’t sleep last night,’ says Frank Cancelloni. ‘It’s a once in a lifetime experience. It’s been remarkable.’