From its early beginnings 30 years ago, Airbus has systematically created a family of airliners

Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON


It was an Anglo-French ministry working party that first published a report on "air bus prospects" in late 1965, called Outline Specification for the High-Capacity Short-Haul Aircraft. This report, which effectively formed the basis for Airbus Industrie's first project, the A300B, stated the need for a 200- to 225-seater aircraft, with a range of 1,500km (800nm).

As the Europeans expanded their evaluation of the market requirements during the second half of the 1960s, the twin-aisle "air bus" study grew in size, first to 270 seats, and later to a 320-seater. The project began to be referred to as the A300.

Early studies were based around a Rolls-Royce-powered twinjet which was to have been equipped with the later stillborn RB207 turbofan. But after the UK pulled out, the A300 was scaled back to 250 seats and the General Electric CF6 engine was adopted to power the new smaller A300B.

As former Airbus president Roger Béteille recalls, US carrier American Airlines had a major influence on the A300's twinjet concept: "American Airlines president Frank Kolk and his team had written a detailed specification for the 200- to 300-seat requirement, and their 'ideal' aircraft was a twin. Much of it formed the basis for the A300 design." Ironically, American eventually chose the trijet DC-10 for its requirement.

The A300B was launched in May 1969, following the foundation agreement. It was another 18 months before Airbus was formally created in December 1970. Operating from its Paris base, the Airbus Industrie team set about establishing itself in the market with its new concept - the world's first widebodied twinjet. In so doing, it was launching Europe's comeback in airliner manufacturing.

"The A300 was a marketing bet," says Airbus financial controller Ian Massey, "and the USA thought this was really amusing - a new European consortium with a widebody twin."

Boeing's response to the A300 was to discredit Europe's efforts rather than try to develop a competing product, says Massey. "We were rather fortunate that the USA underestimated the European threat."

The initial A300B1 version made its first flight from Toulouse on 28 October 1972. The slightly larger B2, which became the standard A300B size, was the first Airbus to enter service - with Air France in 1974. Later, the higher- weight A300B4 provided an increase in range. It became the most popular of the early models.

Although Airbus landed its first major non-European customer, Korean Air, in October 1974, the programme showed signs of plunging into crisis as the world economy slumped after the Middle East oil crisis. "Our sales fell to zero, and output in 1975 and 1976 slumped to one A300 aircraft per month," says Massey. "However, the oil crisis ultimately made the A300 successful because its twin-engined configuration meant it used less fuel than a trijet."

The market picked up in 1977 and the A300, with its superior economics, appeared to be extremely well-suited to the emerging post-crisis market. This was underlined in July 1977, when the A300 won its first North American customer - Eastern Airlines. The little European twinjet had finally touched down in Boeing and McDonnell Douglas' backyard.

The A300 also captured a large chunk of the emerging market in Asia and, says Massey, "by the late 1970s, things were looking much better - the A300 had taken 10% of the market".

Asia provided the launch for Airbus' next technical innovation - the first two-crew flight-deck for a high-capacity airliner, introduced on A300s supplied to Garuda in 1982.

Diversified range

With A300 sales booming, Airbus began to consider smaller, larger and longer-range derivatives based on the A300 fuselage. The former, the 210-seat B10, was perceived as being the first requirement for the market, and it entered the fray in 1983 as the A310. The twinjet went into service with a new, two-crew, digital flightdeck equipped with a six-screen electronic flight instrument system. It was also available with engines from GE and Pratt & Whitney from the start.

Significantly, the A310 project was one of two known occasions when Airbus flirted with the idea of linking up with US arch rival Boeing. Discussions between the two companies to develop the aircraft jointly as the BB10 came to nothing, however. Boeing responded with its own widebody twinjet, the 767.

Airbus ploughed the A310's new technology back into the A300 to create the A300-600. This model, slightly larger than the original A300, entered service with Saudi Arabian Airlines in March 1984. A longer-range version, the -600R, was introduced four years later.

"There was another downturn in the mid-1980s, but the market was stimulated through US deregulation," says Massey. "Airbus benefited from the high dollar value."

As Airbus emerged from the second slump in its brief history, it was preparing for its most important diversification to date - the launch of a narrowbodied airliner. A single-aisle (SA) team had been set up in Toulouse in 1980 to bring together all the independent studies that had been undertaken across Europe.

A family of three aircraft in the 125- to 180-seat category was studied, dubbed the SA1, SA2 and SA3. From February 1981, these were grouped under the A320 name, with Airbus focused on the 150-seater as its first model. This finally entered service in 1988. The other SA models emerged later as the 124-seat A319 and the 185-seat A321, in 1996 and 1994 respectively.

Initial launch delayed

Although Air France confirmed its A320 interest with a letter of intent for 25 aircraft at the 1981 Paris air show, the official launch was delayed for three years after prolonged difficulties over funding for the $200 million development programme. The CFM International CFM56 was the baseline engine on the new model, with the International Aero Engines (IAE) V2500 later becoming available.

Airbus took the brave decision that the A320 would be equipped with a fly-by-wire flight-control system. "Either we were going to be first with new technologies or we could not expect to be in the market," says Béteille.

Another major first was the introduction of a sidestick controller in place of the traditional control column. This flightdeck concept has now been applied to the entire A320 family as well as the A330/A340, and will be the basis for the cockpit on the A380. The system's ability to provide similar flying characteristics - whatever the aircraft's size or configuration - has been a key reason for the huge success of the Airbus family in recent years.

By 1990, A320 orders had passed the 500 mark and the aircraft was clearly set for major success. "This was in spite of initial pilot resistance to the technology, following some early tragic accidents, such as the Air France A320 crash at Habsheim," says Massey. With its pioneering technology, Airbus redoubled its efforts to ensure that "the people could keep up with the advanced systems - it was a challenge for a time", he adds.

Meanwhile, in 1985, Germany's aerospace industry had merged under the Daimler Group. At Airbus, Jean Pierson was appointed to head a new management team as the consortium's pioneering era closed.

At the time of Pierson's appointment, Airbus was again studying the development of a larger widebody twin and long-range quad. His first task was to put together a team to examine which model to launch.

Airbus' chief engineer, Jean Röder, came up with a plan that enabled the two models effectively to become one by creating a common wing structure that reduced overall development costs significantly. The quad's outboard engines could provide bending relief to counteract the increased weight of the long-range model.

Customer interest meant that the quad, dubbed the A340, would lead the programme, with the A330 twinjet following. After a plan to equip the A340 with the ultra-high-bypass "SuperFan", development of the IAE V2500 proved to be a diversion down a blind alley, and the conventionally configured CFM56 became the standard powerplant on the aircraft.

First Rolls-Royce model

Like earlier Airbus widebodies, the A330 was available with GE and P&W engines, but also became the first model to be offered with a Rolls-Royce engine - two decades after the UK engine manufacturer had been knocked off the original A300 programme.

The two-model family received a full go-ahead in June 1987. Two versions of the A340 were offered: the 260-seat -200 and the 295-seat -300. Only one A330 version was initially available, the -300, which was similar in size to the A340, which entered service with Lufthansa in March 1993, followed by the A330 with Air Inter in January 1994.

In the boom of the late 1980s, the Airbus order backlog went through the 1,000 aircraft mark before tumbling back, along with those of its rivals, as the post-Gulf War slump bit. At this time A330 sales took a dive, but Airbus rejuvenated the twinjet's fortunes by launching a shorter-fuselage, longer-range version, the 250-seat A330-200. This model entered service in 1998, and a further shrink, the -500, is being studied to provide Airbus with a new generation 200-seater to replace the A300/A310.

Discussions with Boeing about the joint development of an ultra-large aircraft were in tatters by mid-1995 as the two sides went their separate ways.

50% market share

About the same time, Airbus achieved its founding objective of consistently taking a 30% market share of new orders. Its backlog was also heading back towards the 1,000 aircraft mark. The fiercely competitive Pierson meanwhile set a new target for the manufacturer - to take a 50% market share.

To achieve its ambition, Airbus realised it had to broaden its product line and looked at ways to develop the A340 and revive its own ultra-large aircraft studies. The former effort led to the development of the Rolls-Royce Trent-powered 313/380-seat A340-500/600 family, and the latter crystallised in 1996 as the 550-seat A380 family. The new A340s will enter service next year, and the A380 is slated for introduction by launch customer Singapore Airlines in March 2006.

To plug the gap at the bottom end of its product line, in 1997 Airbus flirted with plans for an Asian joint venture to produce a new family of regional airliners in China. After these efforts failed, it decided to tackle the 100-seat market independently with a fourth A320 model, the A318.

Pierson's ambition of sharing the market equally with Boeing was achieved towards the end of 1999. Airbus had comprehensively outsold its rival for the first time, and ended that year with 48% of the order backlog. Towards the end of 2000, Airbus racked up its 4,000th order, and by its end the consortium had delivered 2,500 aircraft.

As the consortium prepares to be reborn as a company, its new target is clear: to successfully develop the A380 into a worthy successor to all that has gone before. Itis doing so, once again, in theface of open ridicule by its rival Boeing. Some things in this business never change. oStewart Penney/lonDON

At last year's Farnborough air show, defence ministers from seven European countries announced a procurement plan for 225 Airbus Military Company (AMC) A400M four-engine military airlifters.

In 1998, Airbus took over the management of the former Future Large Aircraft programme, which until then had been overseen by EUROFLAG. Redesignated the A400M, the programme marks Airbus' first step into the military sector.

The partners in AMC reflect the core A400M customers, and includes Belgian (Belairbus), Italian (Alenia) and Turkish (Tusas Aerospace Industries) participation as well as the four Airbus partners. Luxembourg, despite not having an air force, ordered one aircraft last July.

The A400M will be fitted with an Airbus-type two-crew glass cockpit with sidestick control. The high-wing, 37t-payload freighter will be powered by four TP400 turboprops. This three-shaft 7,450-9,760kW(10,000-13,000shp) engine will be developed and produced by FiatAvio, ITP, MTU, Rolls-Royce, Snecmaand Techspace Aero.

A launch is expected early this year, with contract signing shortly afterwards. First flight is scheduled to follow 51 months later (ie during 2005), with deliveries of a "logistics aircraft" to the UK Royal Air Force 20 months later.

Despite having seven countries committed, the race for a contract is not complete. The thorny issues of workshare and programme leadership must be finalised. The German-registered management company is based in Munich.

Workshare is always a contentious issue, and the A400M is no exception. Germany, committed to 73 A400Ms, is demanding a 33% share of the programme, but German funding for the A400M, announced last November, was DM10 billion ($4.4 billion) - some way short of the DM16.8 billion needed to fund 73 aircraft.

The UK is to buy 25 aircraft, or 11% of the total - which is much less than its traditional 20% share in Airbus programmes. When announcing the UK's intent in May, however, UK defence minister Geoff Hoon underlined the importance of R-R and BAE Systems' wing-design work to the UK. A likely compromise is that while the UK will have the wing design lead, Germany will have more wing production.

Source: Flight International