The long hello

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The introduction of the A340-500/600 was Airbus's last dry run before next year's A380 debut. Five airlines tell us about their experiences – not all plain-sailing

When Airbus launched the Rolls-Royce Trent 500-powered A340-500/600 family in 1997, in one move it set new benchmarks for long-range airliners. This two-pronged attack on US rival Boeing comprised the -600, which according to Airbus's rules could carry almost as many passengers (380) as a Boeing 747-400 over greater distances; and the world's longest-range airliner, the -500, capable of carrying 313 passengers over 16,100km (8,700nm), with later versions of the aircraft having even greater range.

The A340-600 entered service in August 2002 with launch customer Virgin Atlantic Airways on services between London and New York, while Emirates initiated revenue flights with the A340-500 in October 2003 and used it to launch non-stop 14h duration Dubai-Sydney services two months later.

The new long-haul family gave Airbus such a strong hand that it took several false starts before Boeing was able to create a suitable rival – the General Electric GE90-115B-powered 777-200LR/300ER family. The delay in development meant that the first rival 777 model, the A340-600-sized 777-300ER, trailed almost two years behind, entering service in May 2004, while deliveries of the –500's ultra-long-haul opposition, the 777-200LR, will not begin until next year.

Bumpy ride

There are now 58 A340-500/600s in service (16 -500s and 42 -600s) with nine airlines and one government (see table) in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and North America. All current airline operators were invited to participate in this report, although Air Canada, China Eastern Airlines, Emirates and South African Airways declined to be interviewed.

Virgin, by all accounts, had a fairly bumpy ride with the new quad-jet during the introductory period, suffering some niggling teething problems and unsatisfactory dispatch reliability. Most of the other operators Flight International has spoken to have had better experiences, partly because there was a sizeable interval between the start of Virgin services and theirs.

Operationally, the A340-600 has been used by most airlines to augment and, in some cases replace, long-haul 747 services. The -500 has initiated new ultra-long-haul services for operators, including the current longest air route, between Singapore and New York – a distance of 16,600km.

Delivery of the first A340-600 to Virgin came amid much fanfare at the 2002 Farnborough air show. The aircraft arrived with the legend "4 engines 4 long haul" emblazoned on its engine nacelles, and Virgin chairman Sir Richard Branson declaring that the airline had chosen the four-engined Airbus because "even though they can sometimes cost a little bit more, on long-haul routes the long-term economics are better with four rather than two engines". In its research, Virgin found 18% of travellers would "go out of their way" to fly on four-engined aircraft, said Branson.

Virgin also made much of the fact that the A340-600's 75.3m (247ft) length made it the world's longest aircraft, with the slogan "mine's bigger than yours" adorning the rear fuselage.

But amid all the hype, Virgin and Airbus were gearing up for the serious business of putting the new airliner into service, which was effectively Airbus's last dry run for a new aircraft introduction before the A380's debut in 2006.

Payload increases

Virgin had been an early operator of the CFM International CFM56-powered A340-300, and chose the -600 to supplement its fleet, providing capacity and cargo payload increases. When the carrier made its original purchase in August 1997 – eight firm orders, plus eight options – there was no direct competition from a 777 variant, but Virgin has nevertheless progressively added more orders. It recently fully endorsed the A340-600 when it signed for a further 10 aircraft after running a head-to-head competition with the 777-300ER.

Virgin configured its -600s initially with 311 seats in a relatively spacious three-class layout, but early plans for double beds in private rooms located in the forward cargo hold as well as showers and an exercise and massage area on the aft cargo hold, were dropped – much to the relief to Virgin's cargo department. There is, however, a dedicated on-board massage area at the front of the cabin.

The airline put the -600 into service on 1 August 2002 on the relatively short London Heathrow-New York sector to help quickly build experience on the type, says flight operations director Matt Lee. "We started it on US East Coast routes to get the pilot training throughput so the pilots were away from base for a shorter period of time," he says.

Virgin's director of engineering, Jeff Livings, says that the -600's initial services were sold at the capacity of the A340-300 (56 fewer seats) "in case we had to make an equipment swap. This gave us more options for back-up in the event of a technical problem grounding the aircraft." He adds that the -600 was given a "fairly gentle ramp-up and quite a few rest days".

To help cushion the -600's introduction, Airbus provided a launch team of up to 10 representatives from the manufacturer and major suppliers at Heathrow. A maintenance control operation was also set up at Airbus's Toulouse headquarters, with dedicated teams to provide support and ensure minimum response time.

Virgin now has nine -600s in service and a further 11 on order, and employs the aircraft across its network. The fleet is being progressively upgraded from the original "J-2000" business cabin to the new "Upper Class Suite" interior, which has resulted in a drop in seat count to 306.

Part of the reason for choosing the -600 was the anticipated commonality benefits with the -300, but in practice some of these have failed to materialise. Livings says that the -600 was "sold to us as a derivative aircraft, but it is not – there are lots of new systems and suppliers".

Changes were partly driven by the fact that the new aircraft's introduction came almost a decade after that of the original A340, and because it is 25% larger than its predecessor.

Dispatch shortfall

Livings says that, despite a programme of working group meetings during the -600's development that aimed to give "us a technically mature aircraft at entry into service", this was not achieved. "The dispatch reliability was not acceptable in the first year.

"There was a lack of consistency in performance between entry into service and the end of 2003. Occasionally there was a good week or two, but generally the on-time dispatch reliability was not meeting our expectations during 2003," says Livings. "At the end of 2003 we met [Airbus executive vice-president customer services] Patrick Gavin and his team and discussed our concerns about the aircraft. At that stage the initial Airbus support team had long withdrawn."

The pressure was clearly on Airbus to sort the aircraft's problems out quickly, as not only was Virgin a key customer for its long-haul products (it has six A380s on order), but also the manufacturer's salesmen were at that time locked in a battle with Boeing to supply the airline with a new batch of widebodies.

"A new support team was provided, with people more familiar with the systems' problems," says Livings. These were Airbus technicians from the production line "who brought knowledge that our engineers hadn't gained, and with that knowledge we transferred it to our staff and began to see an improvement in reliability."

Virgin set a target with Airbus at the start of 2004 that the aircraft needed to achieve a basic on-time performance of 98.5% – ignoring the impact of problems with passenger service equipment such as in-flight entertainment (IFE). Livings says that a list of all systems that were causing problems was drawn up "to give an absolute focus on all things that were driving down performance".

The Airbus support team started to leave in the late summer of last year and, although reliability has improved, Livings says that Virgin is still looking to achieve a consistent 98.5% level: "This process is ongoing – it's work in progress."

One of the measures of the aircraft's maturity is the level of "pireps" (pilot's report of problems) being experienced. "We've set a target for pireps of 75 per 1,000 flying hours," says Livings – about the level seen on a mature aircraft like the 747-400. Although pireps have declined, "we're still having more than 100 per 1,000h", he adds.

Airbus has been progressively issuing service bulletins (SB) to address problems on the aircraft, says Livings. "They're bringing them out almost faster than we can do them."

When Virgin's initial batch of -600s went to EADS-Sogerma's Toulouse facilities for the cabin upgrade beginning in late 2003, Airbus took the opportunity to put working parties on the aircraft for the 12 days they were on the ground to implement a batch of SBs.

"The main driver was the replacement of the galley's chiller system," says Livings. The -600's new galley was designed to meet the latest requirements, but ongoing technical problems after entry into service meant that Airbus had technical specialists at Heathrow "for months trying to keep them going", and on occasion flights had to depart with dry ice to provide cooling. The problem was "an irritation", says Livings, and in the end the system had to be stripped out and replaced.

Changes of vendor for a number of systems added to frustrations when problems arise. Livings says that a good example of this is the fuel system, "which was quite unreliable in the -300, and they changed the vendor on the -600. But we went through years of modifications on the -300 to make that system reliable, and we now have the same degradation problems on the -600 with a new supplier."

The basic problem with the fuel system is that software faults result in the automatic systems "not putting the fuel into the right tanks". Revised software is due to be implemented this summer, but the various problems have already culminated in a highly publicised incident involving a Virgin A340-600 that had to divert to Amsterdam earlier this year when an engine ran down due to fuel starvation (Flight International, 5-11 April). This incident has resulted in Airbus advising operators to instruct crews to check fuel levels every 30min and providing details of actions if automatic transfer has failed.

Probably the biggest "system change" from the -300 to the -600 is the adoption of R-R 53,000-56,000lb thrust (236-249kN) Trent 500 engines in place of the CFM56, providing almost double the installed thrust. Although there have been some problems with the powerplants, Livings says the engine manufacturer's Total Care support programme "works very well". This enables all off-wing maintenance to be undertaken for a set price, and includes spare engine financing.

One issue that has afflicted almost all Virgin's Trent engines at some point is oil degradation. "The oil gets like a thick syrup," says Livings. The problem has been solved after a change to the oil seal.

A difficulty experienced by most operators is the compressor blade tips rubbing on the engine casing as clearance was too tight, causing damage to the blades. Livings says that this has not caused the airline any in-service problems.

Virgin's head of flight technical services, Jeff Clark, says the Trent 500's fuel burn "is very close to book; not materially worse than book". He adds that a new engine specification, dubbed the "A2", installed from the airline's 10th aircraft, provides a 0.5-1% improvement in specific fuel consumption. One ongoing problem with an engine-related system has been failures of the integrated drive generator (IDG) that is fitted on each engine. On start-up, and usually on cold days, the diodes fail when bringing the system on line. "This is an annoying problem – it should not exist," says Livings.

Livings says that the IDG supplier, Hamilton Sundstrand, has supported the problem well by providing four units on loan free of charge.

From a flight operations perspective the -600 has been well received, says Lee: it is the aircraft's cargo-carrying capability that has really impressed. "With a maximum passenger load of 306 from London to Hong Kong, we can uplift 20t of cargo. The aircraft is almost a ‘combi' for us. On some routes we can make more money from cargo than from the passenger business if there is a light load in the cabin," he says.

Comfort problem

One potential problem for passenger comfort identified early in the A340-600 flight-test programme was flexing of the forward fuselage during turbulence. However, this has proved less of an issue than feared in service, and has been reduced by modifying flight management computer (FMC) software. "Accelerometers were installed in the engine pylons, which send inputs via the FMC to the ailerons and rudder to damp out the turbulence," says Livings.

There were the "usual teething problems" with the -600's Matsushita 3000 IFE at service entry, which had been "running up ACARS bills" as crews conversed with base over the datalink about resolving problems, says Livings. New built-in test equipment software has improved reliability and provides information on user errors, which enables problems to be addressed in training.

"Large" was the primary theme when bringing pilots on to the -600 from the -300, says Virgin's chief pilot Robin Cox, with the main concern being ground handling of the world's longest aircraft. "We stressed ‘caution, caution, caution' right from the word go. When we first got the -600 we took the training pilots to East Midlands airport to practise taxiing and using the ground manoeuvring cameras." He adds that the -600 experience has improved the taxiing technique of the -300 "as we now know where the wheels are going!".

Compared with the -300 (which is not renowned for its sprightliness), the -600 has "more get up and go that is much appreciated by crews", says Cox. The excess power means that the -600 has the facility to use two thrust derates in the climb. "As soon as the rate of climb drops to 1,000ft per min [5m/s], we go to the next derate," says Cox.

Because of the increased fuselage length and possible risk of a tailscrape, slight modifications to the fly-by-wire software have been made in the rotation law, which Cox says gives a "slightly different feel", but has not provided any problems for crews adjusting.

Virgin's initial training requirement was that pilots needed six months experience on the -300 before being eligible for a mixed fleet flying (MFF) rating on the -600, which required the differences course and two sectors on the bigger aircraft. With the increasing size of the -600 fleet, Virgin is now putting pilots straight on to both variants with the bulk of training on -300 and then four sectors on -600 to qualify for MFF.

Although Virgin is comfortable with the fuel consumption of its A340-600 fleet, Cox says that the airline is looking to see if the centre of gravity (CG) "is in exactly the right place for optimum fuel burn performance – for example, we are examining the potential effect of a slightly forward CG".

Cathay Pacific Airways decided to lease three A340-600s from International Lease Finance to launch non-stop flights between Hong Kong and New York. One is a spare aircraft used on the Hong Kong-Vancouver-New York route three times a week and has also occasionally operated to Sydney. The airline was the second carrier to take delivery of the new A340 family, in November 2002, and says it has been generally satisfied with the fleet's performance, but declines to discuss or even acknowledge any potential problems because it is now evaluating new ultra-long-haul aircraft.

"The main reason we have those aircraft is for Hong Kong-New York," says Cathay director of engineering Derek Cridland. "That's the primary mission of the aircraft. The other stuff is just to fill the gaps."

Proactive support

Cridland declines to provide the fleet's dispatch reliability, saying with such a small fleet this figure can be skewed. "The dispatch reliability and the acceptance by the passengers and crew have been good," Cridland says. "Support from Airbus has been very proactive."

Iberia's association with the A340-600 came through a "back-door" route: in a bargain-basement deal with Airbus, the airline picked up three "whitetail" -600s that had been destined for the defunct Swissair to replace 747s. The first of these arrived in mid-2003, and due to a combination of additional orders and leases, the Spanish flag carrier now has eight in service and five more on backlog.

The airline, which already operates 18 A340-300s, put the 342-seater (three-class) to work on its long-haul services from Madrid to Buenos Aires, Lima and New York, as well as using its capacity for the relatively short hop to the Canary Islands.

"The 747 is too large for most Iberia routes – the A340-600 has the right passenger and cargo capacity for our network," says Iberia senior vice-president flight operations Ricardo G...nova. He adds that the A340's four-engined configuration is a benefit for "a company for which extended-range twin-engine operations experience is very limited".

Iberia is generally pleased with the performance of the -600, but has shared some of the early problems suffered by other operators. "The baseline support from Airbus and R-R has been good. They're very proactive and have very frequent meetings to minimise the impact of any problems," says Iberia's engineering director for its maintenance division Pedro Sáez Minguez.

He adds that while "in the beginning we'd expected to have better dispatch reliability…the performance has been evolving and improving as more SBs are issued and implemented".

Like other operators, the fuel software glitches have continued to be an issue, although "modifications and upgrades have reduced the problem to some degree", says Minguez.

The airline has also suffered some problems with the A340-600's toilet system, which Minguez says is being addressed by a redesign.

From an engine perspective, Minguez says that some early support issues have been resolved. "We had several unscheduled removals in the beginning and there was an issue over the supply of spare engines. Supply has now improved."

Despite the early hitches, Iberia saw fit to adopt the -600 for its long-haul fleet- renewal programme in 2004, when it selected the type over the 777. It is now reconfiguring its -600 into a three-class 352-seat layout.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) ordered five A340-500s (plus five options) in 1998 to open new non-stop services from Singapore to Los Angeles and New York. At that time it had a large fleet of A340-300s, but has since disposed of these through a trade-in deal with Boeing for 777s. The airline is yet to confirm its options.

SIA's first A340-500 was delivered in December 2003, configured in a spacious 181-seat two-class configuration. The airline initially deployed the new aircraft on new direct flights to Los Angeles, with the 18h New York Newark services – the world's longest non-stop scheduled flight – beginning in mid-2004. The Los Angeles service is also about 18h westerly towards Singapore, but only around 16h on the easterly outbound routing.

SIA acknowledges it has experienced problems with its A340-500 fleet, but refuses to detail what they are, saying it does not want to point fingers.

"SIA had requested modifications to address various technical issues," says divisional vice-president of engineering Chow Kok Wah. "In the coming months, most of the improvement modifications will be available and will be embodied into the fleet and we should see further improvements to dispatch reliability thereafter."

Chow declines to provide the current dispatch reliability figure, but says: "Given the demands of ultra-long-haul operations, we are satisfied with dispatch reliability."

SIA A340-500 chief pilot Capt Robert Ting says problems encountered have been normal for the introduction of new aircraft types. "Overall, we are happy," he says. "This particular aircraft does not pose any problem…very seldom has it been pulled out for AOG [aircraft on ground] or delay on ground." SIA has not reported any significant problems with the cabin furnishings and support from suppliers has been good, according to Chow and Ting.

"Generally the systems and engines are performing well. Technical issues that have arisen since operations began have been raised with relevant vendors and they are addressing them," says Chow.

"Airbus, Rolls-Royce and the key suppliers supported SIA well, despite the demands of ultra-long-range operations. Response speed was good and most issues were addressed promptly."

The two US services require two aircraft each and, when it can, SIA operates its fifth A340-500 on the Singapore-Jakarta route. The short flight to Jakarta gives SIA's 132 A340 pilots an opportunity to log an extra take-off and landing without having to cross the globe. When none of the five aircraft are down for maintenance, SIA will operate two A340-500 flights a day to Jakarta with two separate two-man crews.

On the ultra-long-haul sectors, SIA is required to use two captains and two co-pilots on each flight, so it takes two roundtrips for one pilot to complete both a take-off and landing. Each pilot is ensured of meeting the minimum requirement of at least one landing per 28 days because on average each pilot completes 2.5 ultra-long-haul roundtrips, the equivalent of 77-78 total hours of flying time per 28-day period.

Simulator hours

Landings on SIA's A340-300 simulator, which the carrier has retained, can count towards the minimum requirement. SIA has not acquired an A340-500/600 simulator, but last year sent a group of crews to use another A340-600 operator's device. SIA is planning to acquire another block of time on a-600 simulator this year.

About half the crew – which includes 65 captains, 65 co-pilots and two senior captains – flew SIA's A340-300s before these aircraft were phased out two years ago. Ting says the A340-500 has been received well by pilots with and without Airbus experience.

"The pilots are generally very im­­pres­sed," Ting says. "The technology is very advanced. Compared with the -300 series the performance is much better and the handling is also much better."

Ting say being the first ultra-long-haul operator created some challenges for SIA, especially in the area of crew transition training. He says the "initial start-up requirement was for such a large number of crews" that some pilots had to wait a long time after training to begin flying.

"That was unchartered territory," Ting says. "We had to involve the medical community…to determine how to operate these ultra-long-haul flights."

Input from the medical community and a private company helped SIA and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore set the rest requirements, which include two rest periods during each flight of at least 4h. Before each flight, pilots must have at least four local nights free of flying duty. The layover in Los Angeles and New York must be at least two nights, but in practice is generally three nights.

When Lufthansa put its first A340-600 into service in December 2003, it was the seventh airline to introduce the new family and it benefited from the experiences of earlier operators and enjoy a relatively trouble-free introduction. "The aircraft performed much better than we had hoped, as we were a year or two after Virgin, which suffered a lot of early problems," says Lufthansa's A330/A340 chief pilot operation and technic, Capt Ingo Tegtmeyer.

The airline used the -600 to introduce its new business-class product, unusually equipping the aircraft with a two-class, 347-seat layout with no first-class compartment. After its introduction on services from Frankfurt to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile, the airline now has 10 -600s in operation across its long-haul network and a further seven on firm order.

Deliveries to the airline started about a month late because of a mix of problems – partly due to an issue with the Rockwell Collins IFE system and partly because of a last-minute issue with German certification of Lufthansa's lower-deck facilities. Airbus says the German LBA initially ruled that just one crew member could use the crew rest facility at a time, but this was later relaxed to allow the planned number of four people to use it simultaneously.

Like other existing A340 operators, Lufthansa's A340 pilots are MFF-rated, with initial -600 crews taken from the -300 fleet. When the new A340 first arrived, some crews found the feel of the bigger aircraft slightly different to the -300, says Tegtmeyer: "The rotation technique on the -600 in training was an issue because the behaviour is slightly different to the -300."

Tegtmeyer says pilots were used to the -300, where the technique is to make the stick input and wait for the result, whereas on the -600 the response is immediate. "This caused some moments of surprise – they release the stick and it stops the rotation immediately."

The airline has been generally pleased with the performance of the Trent 500, but has had three unscheduled removals – mainly due to the blade tip-rubbing problems – and one in-flight shut-down, which Tegtmeyer says was due to an electronic engine control system problem.

Lufthansa usually cruises the -600 at Mach 0.83, but can operate at M0.84 "if it is worth being earlier at the destination", says Tegtmeyer. He adds that the -600 has met contractural performance guarantees, but "we are looking into some issues regarding performance on certain routings where we've had slightly higher fuel consumption than calculated – not specific to an individual tail number."

Airbus believes that this is as a consequence of Lufthansa's unusual lower deck galley/toilet/crew-rest layout: "This takes up a significant portion of the rear cargo compartment, which results in goods that would normally be aft being put in the forward cargo hold," explains A330/A340/A350 programme manager Olivier Andries. "This shifts the CG forwards, which incurs a performance penalty of a half a percentage point."

Fuel problems

Although the airline had some initial problems with the fuel system, Tegtmeyer says that software upgrades and training have reduced these so that the reliability of the system is in line with the rest of Lufthansa's fleet.

Lufthansa opted to install a water dispenser system in the lower galley for passengers to serve themselves with cold refreshments, but a fault in the design means that the water is not cold. The system has been disabled pending its rectification.

The highly functional Rockwell Collins Enhanced Total Entertainment System IFE, for which Lufthansa was launch customer, had "a lot of problems in the beginning", says Tegtmeyer. "It has taken a year to get a certain level of stabilisation and we are looking to further upgrades to get it to its full functionality."

He blames the problems on a combination of "lack of robustness" and "mishandling by operators".

Airbus is already gearing up for the next phase of the A340-500/600's development, with the introduction next year of the heavier 380t maximum take-off weight version that offers airlines either longer range or greater payload. The manufacturer will be working doubly hard to ensure that the new model arrives with a mature level of reliability that has taken several years to be achieved by the original version.

MAX KINGSLEY-JONES/FRANKFURT, LONDON AND MADRID & BRENDAN SOBIE/SINGAPORE