If Airbus Industrie sticks to its timetable for the A3XX, the first example of the 560- to 660-seat long-range giant will be undergoing flight demonstrations for the first time in public at the 2003 Paris air show. What visitors to the show will see circling over the famous Le Bourget airfield will be the biggest passenger airliner ever built - a claim not heard since the first Boeing 747 had its maiden flight in 1969.
In terms of size, the A3XX will fall between the Boeing 747 and the Antonov An-124 transport - although its wingspan and height will exceed those of both aircraft, and, at 24.3m, will be greater even than the huge six-engined Antonov An-225 which was shown at Farnborough in 1990. The most visible external difference compared to the 747 will be the full-length twin-deck configuration which will, in a high-capacity seating layout, allow for carriage of almost 1,000 passengers aboard the stretched version on short- and medium-range trips.
The A3XXrepresents Airbus' long-term answer to a Boeing 747 monopoly which, for a quarter of a century, has enabled the Seattle-based manufacturer not only to claim the high ground on seating capacity, but to use its profits from the 747 to attack prices lower down the range, where Airbus has been market-limited.
This, coupled with the market predictions from both Airbus and Boeing for a need for more than 1,400 aircraft of more than 400 seats to the year 2016, points to the virtual certainty of Airbus launching the A3XX at the end of 1998. It has, in effect, been left with little choice, given Boeing's market domination and the continuing need to establish a full product line. The consortium (which should be re-formed into a single company by the time of the A3XX Ìnal design freeze at the end of 1999) also wants to take advantage of Boeing's decision earlier in the year to cancel its proposed growth 747-500 and -600, which left Airbus with a welcome breathing space in which to talk to the market on the basis of exclusivity.
The consortium is not, however, hiding from the realities that have made Boeing the world's most successful aircraft manufacturer. It knows only too well that the demise of the -500/-600 has not meant the end of the Seattle manufacturer's stake in the high-capacity market. First will come higher gross weight and higher capacity versions of the 747-400, while in the longer term, few doubt that eventually there will be a brand new aircraft.
"It's only a matter of time," says Airbus large aircraft division senior vice-president Jurgen Thomas. "We are designing the A3XX with competition in mind. We are not going to benefit from the kind of monopoly that Boeing has held for so long." He adds, however, that the A3XX is expected to capture "at least half" of the market for such aircraft.
The probable launch at Le Bourget of A340-500 and A340-600 derivatives of the baseline A340-300 will mean that by the time of the A3XX launch, Airbus will already have extended the seating capacity offered by the consortium to almost 400 seats, offering a range of almost 16,000km (8,600nm). These, however, are re-engined derivatives of existing aircraft, whereas the A3XX is totally new, and will incorporate technologies aimed at reducing its operating costs by at least 15%, and possibly 20%, below that of the 747-400.
Airbus pushes the A3XX as not just one, but a family of ultra-large aircraft which will see the initial 555-seat A3XX-100 developed into several versions, including the stretched 656-seat -200, extended range -100R, stretched shorter range -200S, short range -100S and, possibly, a shrunken 480-seat version. It is also adamant that combi and freight versions must be launched as soon as possible to take advantage of what it says is "extreme interest" from FedEx and other package freight companies.
Several working groups have been formed at the Large Aircraft Division at Toulouse to study various aspects of the A3XX, including its freight role, high-frequency operations in the Japanese market, ground handling, cabin interior, environment and the impact on airports. Thomas says that one area where such a group is not needed, however, is in the cockpit, where the need for commonality with the existing Airbus fleet remains paramount. "There will of course be differences," says Airbus technical director Alain Garcia, "but they will be more linked with our research into human factors, which will see improvements applied across the board to our entire range of aircraft."
The installation of a single industrial directorate for the A3XX is expected to simplify greatly the programme, grouping all disciplines under one roof, and introducing what Airbus calls a "multi-functional" way of working. All of the Airbus Industrie centres of competence in various locations in partner countries are involved, and operate through integrated teams able also to accommodate the new members which are signing up for the project.
The business case for going ahead with the A3XX "must be convincing", says Thomas. Besides the apparently clear market demand, there must also be sufficient risk-sharing partners to take a 40% stake in what is likely to be a $10 billion programme. So far, the response, which covers the study phase of the programme before full risk-sharing membership, has come mainly from non-consortium European companies such as Italy's Alenia, Belgium's Belairbus, Fokker Aviation (Stork), Saab Aircraft and Finnavitec. Together, these five will, if the project goes ahead, account for around 20% of the programme, leaving just 20% to be placed. Thomas hopes that the remainder will go to stakeholders willing to take larger single shares, which would both simplify production organisation and reduce setting up costs. He adds that there is still "plenty of time" to find further partners, and talks about Malaysia being "very interested", while Lockheed Martin of the USA is still in negotiations for a possible major share.
The question of power for the A3XX has moved forward, with the recent decision to allow only two suppliers to offer engines. "Airlines insist, and Airbus Industrie has decided that the A3XX must provide dual sources of engines", says the consortium, adding that "-the current A330 engines from General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce do not provide enough thrust for developed A3XX versions, and current Boeing 777 engines are too big, too heavy and too expensive".
A memorandum of understanding has already been signed with R-R for the Trent 900, and under discussion are the P&W PW4500 and the GP7200 from the GE/P&W Engine Alliance. The chosen powerplants must all provide a minimum of 307kN (69,000lb) thrust, with growth potential to 347kN. While all three potential candidates will certainly meet Airbus' performance and reliability requirements, the crucial question, given the 15% lower operating cost target, will be fuel economy, a factor which could mitigate in favour of the brand-new engine (albeit developed from existing components) being contemplated by the Alliance.
Infrastructure and ground operations remain a major A3XX consideration, and Airbus has been working with 30 of the world's major airports to ensure that the aircraft can work within their existing infrastructures. The A3XX size has been constrained to an 80 x80m box, which accommodates a 25% capacity increase for the stretched -200 configuration. The consortium claims, in fact, that the A3XX will turn on a 53.8m radius, which it says is better than the Boeing 777, at 54.9m. On pavement loading, the new aircraft will come in at slightly less than that of the Boeing 747-400, says Airbus. Turnaround times will also, it claims, be less than those of the 747-400, because of the two-deck arrangement and the planned dual-lane stairway and four-aisle boarding possible with two full-length twin-aisle decks. Airbus says that turnaround time will be 70-95min for a 550-seat A3XX, compared with 80-95min for a Boeing 747-400 with 400 people aboard.
In terms of technology, however, there are several features which will make the aircraft significantly different to its predecessors. Perhaps the most potentially exciting is the possible extensive use of a new aluminium alloy/glassfibre reinforced plastic composite material (called Glare) for the entire top half of the fuselage. Developed by Delft University and Fokker in Holland over the past 15 years, Glare consists of thin layers of aluminium alloy sandwiched between layers of glassfibre reinforced plastic oriented in specific directions, to give what appears to be exceptionally good damage tolerance, fatigue and fire resistance, as well as yielding a weight saving of up to 1.5t, if the fuselage application goes ahead. Thomas insists, however, that "-there must be a sound technical and business case for any new material such as this," says Thomas.