When the first A320 was handed over three decades ago this month, few – Airbus included – would have put odds on deliveries reaching 1,000 aircraft, let alone the 8,000-mark recently passed.
But more than a quarter of a century later, perhaps the greater surprise is that Boeing’s original short-haul twinjet has consistently seen off the threat from an all-new design half its age, and that it is still being pumped out in huge numbers.
With its fly-by-wire and wider, optimised cabin configuration, the A320 revolutionised the short-haul sector when it arrived in 1988. And it was the chosen weapon with which Europe’s airliner manufacturing industry intended to re-establish itself on the global stage.
At the time, Boeing had just “rebooted” the 737 by adopting the CFM International CFM56. The order backlog stood at a healthy 500 aircraft, which gave Seattle some breathing space to formulate its next move.
The smart money said Boeing sooner or later had to respond with its own clean-sheet design – possibly incorporating step-change engine technology in the form of a propfan. But then that upstart from Toulouse began putting heat under Seattle, culminating in devout Boeing customer United Airlines signing a landmark order – albeit a keenly priced one – in 1992, for 50 A320s.
Within a year Boeing had responded to the growing threat with the launch of what it called the “next-generation” (NG) family. Crucially, this was not all-new, but in fact a second reboot of the 737.
Shortly after the 737NG debuted in 1997, Boeing’s acquisition of McDonnell Douglas created the mainline jet duopoly that exists to this day. Then Airbus’s burning ambition to become a genuine rival began bearing fruit.
Boeing, which had driven up 737 production in the late 1990s in an effort to dominate the sector, slashed output in the wake of 9/11, while Airbus held its nerve. Since 2002, A320 commercial deliveries have consistently outpaced those of the 737.
By the time Airbus undertook its first A320 refresh in 2010, as the Neo, Boeing looked ready to move on. Many questioned the logic of responding with another iteration of its old girl – but that’s exactly what Boeing did. That was a tough call, and one Seattle still might come to regret.
But whether Boeing goes on to build another 5,000 or 10,000 737s, it must be congratulated on this month’s historic milestone: 10,000 aircraft is not bad for a design that was late into the short-haul market in the 1960s and has had its last rites read on more than one occasion.