When it enters service in 2003, the A3XX will be the world's biggest civil aircraft. Perhaps more significantly, at least from the commercial point of view, the European giant will complete the Airbus range and remove at a stroke Boeing's long-held monopoly in extra-large people carriers.

For three years during the early 1990s, there were concerted efforts from both sides of the Atlantic to develop and build jointly a an aircraft with more than 500 seats, as there were concerns that the potential market was not large enough to support two competing products. Individual Airbus partners, and later Airbus itself, discussed with Boeing the joint development a family of 500- to 800-seat long-range family, dubbed "Very Large Commercial Transport" (VLCT). By mid-1995, however, with a launch unlikely, the project was abandoned. With many within Airbus believing that the VLCT project did little other than delay their own large-aircraft ambitions, the consortium then set about its own programme in earnest, while Boeing re-activated 747-based derivative studies.

The A3XX "-has to happen", says former Airbus president Roger Béteille. "If not, the success of Airbus will be only partial." All efforts are now being concentrated on achieving enough momentum for a launch at the end of 1998 - if not, the consortium may lose the lead it has over a US rival. Béteille says that the A3XX "-does not represent a major technical risk. The Airbus problem is more "-one of economics, and of finding investors to back the programme".

That Airbus is proposing such a massive project, with development costs now looking as if they will approach $10 billion, may seem a huge step forwards for a 25-year old consortium of companies which has, to date, relied for its credibility on derivatives of just three basic designs in two fuselage widths. Yet, it is again typical that no such aircraft would be launched without a carefully thought-out strategy to ensure both market and technical acceptance. The same rules are as true of the A3XX as they were for the first fly-by-wire Airbus, the A320:introduce technical innovation - but only if it pays its way and provides benefits both in airline service and in the maintenance workshop.

The A3XX nevertheless represents a huge financial challenge, which is why Airbus is lining up more risk-sharing partners than in any previous project. Not just the Airbus partners, but other European companies, along with US and Asian manufacturers, are being invited to take up to 40% of the programme. "From a pure financial-capacity point of view, Europe can launch the A3XX on its own," says senior vice president strategic planning Adam Brown, adding that "-linking with 'foreign' partners has a number of benefits".

To date, South Korea is the major potential non-European partner to have said publicly that it is interested in joining, while Italy's Alenia, Belgium's Belairbus, Finland's Finnavitec, Holland's Fokker Aviation (Stork) and Sweden's Saab Aircraft have pledged to take around 20% of the programme. The hope is that the remainder will go to shareholders willing to commit to larger single stakes, which would reduce setting up costs by simplifying production.

The most visible external difference between the A3XX and any existing high-capacity aircraft will be the full-length twin-deck configuration which will allow up to 800 passengers to be seated aboard the stretched version on short- to medium-range trips. Before deciding upon its ovoid double-deck configuration in1994, Airbus studied different layouts, including a 600-seat proposal with a horizontal double-bubble fuselage, offering a range of 13,000km.

Market predictions from both and Boeing point to a need for more than 1,400 aircraft of more than 400 seats to the year 2016, supporting Airbus' conviction that it needs to launch the A3XX soon if Boeing's domination is to be countered. The consortium (which should be re-formed into a company by the time of the A3XX final design freeze at the end of 1999) also wants to take advantage of Boeing's decision earlier in the year to abandon its proposed growth 747-500 and -600. Boeing is showing signs of returning to the fray with revised designs, however, only adding to the pressure to launch. First will come a higher-gross-weight, higher-capacity 747, while, in the longer term, few doubt that eventually there will be a brand-new aircraft. Jurgen Thomas, Airbus large-aircraft division senior vice-president, worked closely with Boeing in the early 1990s on the VLCT project and believes that the emergence of a US-rival is "...only a matter of time. We are designing the A3XX with competition in mind. I'm afraid we are not going to benefit from the kind of monopoly that Boeing has held for so long".

Airbus is not being misled by suggestions that Boeing will not initially compete in the market: "Our business projections for the A3XX assume a directly competitive Boeing product is out there from day one," says Adam Brown.

Thomas expects that the A3XX will capture "at least half" of the market for such aircraft. The technology of the A3XX, says Thomas, must yield direct-operating-cost savings of at least 15% and, it is to be hoped, 20% below those of the Boeing 747-400. This will be achieved not only by the greater seating capacity of the A3XX, but also through the use of the fly-by-wire flight-control system and the associated aerodynamic advantages, such as gust-load alleviation - which, in an aircraft the size of the new Airbus, will bring potentially higher fuel-consumption reductions than for the current models.

The engines - both the Rolls-Royce Trent 900, for which a memorandum of understanding has already been signed, and the joint GP7000 offering from Pratt &Whitney and General Electric which is the other powerplant candidate - will be more efficient than those of today, .

Other technologies are being considered, such as wing riblets to reduce skin-friction drag, and there are studies to look at a more-efficient empennage design. Materials, also, form part of the work, with consideration of aluminium-lithium for the upper half of the fuselage structure, to save weight and increase fatigue resistance.

The initial 550-seat A3XX-100 will have a range of 14,200km (7,650nm) enabling non-stop flights from London to Singapore, while the stretched -200 will carry 660 passengers over the same range and the -100R will take the -100 payload around 1,000km further. All this means that pasengers will spend a very long time in the cabin, and it is in the area of comfort and flexibility that Airbus is perhaps likely to spring the most surprises.

"Airlines now like to redesign their cabins once every four years, instead of once every ten when the 747 came into service," says A3XXmarketing director Robert Lange. "So, when you look at an aircraft life of 30 years, that's at least six reconfigurations. At present, each reconfiguration means a downtime of several days, which is unacceptable. We're therefore taking a totally new look at cabin flexibility." More easily removable seats are being designed, for example, to ease what can be a prolonged struggle to shift an entire row of seats complete with the extensive wiring for in-flight entertainment and other passenger services.

The A3XX cockpit will be on a "mezzanine" level between the two passenger decks, which Airbus sees as the best aerodynamic location. A straight, dual-lane, staircase leads off the entrance area and there will be a second staircase at the rear of the cabin. The lower cargo-hold deck will also be able to be configured to accommodate passenger amenities.

Many of the A3XXdesign decisions are being driven by the core group of 19 airlines which hold regular workshops in which the major issues are discussed. Lange says that airline interest is "mounting", particularly with respect to the combi and freighter variants, with FedEx, for example, calling for these variants to be offered as soon as possible after the passenger version is launched. "The A3XXoffers huge capacity with minimum implications for the aircraft structure," he adds.

One area where a working 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 senior vice-president for engineering 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 greatly to simplify 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.

Infrastructure and ground operations remain a major A3XX consideration, and Airbus has been working with 30 of the world's major airports to ensure the aircraft can work within the existing infrastructure. The A3XX size has been constrained to an 80m 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 - against the Boeing 777's 54.9m. On pavement loading, the new aircraft will weigh in at slightly less than the Boeing 747-400, claims Airbus. Turnaround times will also, it adds, be less than for the 747-400, because of the two - deck arrangement and the dual-lane stairway, with four-aisle boarding possible with the twin-deck configuration. Airbus says turnaround time will be between 70 and 95min for a 550-seat A3XX, compared with the 747-400, with 400 aboard, at 80-95min.

If the project stays within its current timetable, the A3XX should be ready to have its flying debut in time for Le Bourget 2003.

Source: Flight International