It is somewhat ironic that as Boeing starts production of its 1,000th 777, Airbus is calling time on its rival after acknowledging zero prospect of more sales.

While stubbornly-high fuel oil prices ultimately killed off the A340 - even Toulouse has long acknowledged its four-engined configuration means a higher thirst than the 777 - the reality is that Airbus has struggled almost since launch.

When it launched the A340 back in the late 1980s, Airbus made one fatal error. Having beaten Boeing to market with its A340 and its medium-range twinjet sister, the A330, it took the view that Boeing - burdened by the difficult birth of the 747-400 and a likely need to respond to the A320 with an all-new single-aisle - did not have the resources to commit to an all-new widebody. Perhaps Boeing even helped Airbus apply this logic by codenaming its studies "767-X".

The A340's launch was more a stutter. After initially being powered by the spectacular IAE V2500 "Superfan" (a geared turbofan promising significant fuel burn savings - sound familiar?), Airbus was forced into an embarrassing scramble to bring in CFM International when IAE was scared off by the technical risks.

A340 @ sunset

 ©  AirTeamImages

A340: four engines too far?

However, real problems started when Boeing launched the all-new 777 in 1990 and its salesmen systematically went through Airbus's hard-fought A340 customer base. So by the time the big Boeing made its debut in 1995, Airbus was already looking for ways to develop the A340 into a new niche. Through a stretch and new engines, Airbus spent $2 billion creating the A340-500/600, which was briefly the world's longest airliner and, significantly, a serious rival to the 747-400. Boeing was bound to be reluctant to want to compete with its "queen of the skies" and, in any case, faced a huge technical hurdle convincing an engine maker to create a suitable engine.

As A340 production peaked in 2003, just after the new model's introduction with 33 deliveries, this looked like a smart move. But once again history shows that Airbus called it wrong, for with GE's help, Boeing created the 777-300ER which alone has now sold 545 units, compared with only 379 for the entire A340 production run.

In contrast, the A330 has sold almost 1,200 units. One can only imagine how much more impressive this sales tally could have been if Airbus had got over its four-engined obsession and thrown its weight behind the A330 much earlier in the programme's life.

Source: Flight International