Europe's newest jetliner, the Airbus A350, has successfully began its maiden flight, stepping up a battle with arch-rival Boeing for sales of a new generation of sleek, lightweight passenger planes.

Watched by over 10,000 employees and spectators, the aircraft flew from southwestern France to the Pyrenees, with a crew of six wearing orange jumpsuits and parachutes.

The flight, with two former fighter pilots at the controls, was expected to last four hours and caps eight years of development estimated to have cost $15 billion.

"The airplane is behaving extremely well," said British chief test pilot Peter Chandler, speaking by radio link from an altitude of 13,000 feet.

Co-pilot Guy Magrin, a former French air force pilot, took the controls for the take-off at 8.01am Irish time, giving the plane air under its wings for the first time in front of a podium of airline chiefs who have ordered 613 aircraft.

"It is a great day for Airbus. A maiden flight doesn't happen that often. It is not like the auto industry where you launch a new model every two years or even less," said Tom Enders, the head of Airbus parent EADS.

The long-awaited sortie is a milestone for Airbus as it battles against Boeing's 787 Dreamliner for sales of a new generation of lightweight carbon-composite jets designed to save fuel and open up new long-distance routes.

Boeing has so far outsold Airbus using the revolutionary technology for aircraft woven from tough but lightweight carbon-plastic materials, with Dreamliner sales standing at 833 aircraft for 57 customers.

Airbus hopes to catch up with the Dreamliner and also mount a challenge to the US manufacturer's larger, metallic 777 using a later version of the A350.