Julian Moxon/TOULOUSE Max Kingsley-Jones/LONDON

Orders for the Airbus A3XX have reached the pre-launch target of 50 aircraft, following a deal with Virgin for up to 12 of the 550-seaters. This clears the way for the programme's formal go-ahead, which the Airbus supervisory board was expected to sanction at its meeting today (19 December). This will signal the full industrial launch for the $10.7 billion project, with the aircraft due to enter service with Singapore Airlines (SIA) in March 2006.

Virgin's deal, which confirms an "expression of interest" placed in June, calls for the delivery of six firmly ordered A3XXs from 2006, and includes options on six more aircraft. The airline values the deal at $3.8 billion (including price escalation for delivery dates and some spares), and has followed 49% shareholder SIA with the selection of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 over the Engine Alliance GP7200.

Virgin joins SIA, Emirates, International Lease Finance, Qantas and Air France as A3XX launch customers, who between them have placed 50 firm orders and 42 options for 92 aircraft, worth $19.9 billion at current prices. The expected launch this week is also likely to see the project formally named within the Airbus numbering system, with "A350", "A360" and "A380" being the leading candidates.

Meanwhile Airbus has revealed A3XX workshares and details of how completed sections of the aircraft will be transported to the Toulouse final assembly site. The division of work is similar to that used in the A330/A340 programmes, with Airbus France responsible for the cockpit and centre fuselage section, Airbus Deutschland for the forward and rear fuselages and vertical stabiliser, Airbus España for the horizontal tailplane, and Airbus UK for the wings (see diagram). Because of their size, however, Airbus is delivering sections to Toulouse by a novel combination of sea, river and road (Flight International, 12-18 December 2000).

"All our analyses of production methods indicated that it was easier to build the fuselage in whole sections as with our existing aircraft," says Jes£s Morales, vice-president of manufacturing for Airbus large aircraft division. Sections will be delivered to the final assembly line fully equipped, as now, mounted on special jigs to which they remain attached throughout the journey.

The transport process starts in Germany with loading of fuselage sections onto a purpose built roll-on/roll-off vessel. The ship then picks up a shipset of wings from Mostyn in the UK, continuing to St Nazaire, where the forward fuselage will be unloaded to be mated with the cockpit section. This combined subassembly is reloaded and joined by the centre section, also built at St Nazaire.

The ship continues to Bordeaux to join the horizontal tailplane and belly fairing which will have arrived from Spain. The entire aircraft shipset is then loaded onto roll-on/roll-off barges for transport to the highest navigable point upstream, about 80km (50 miles) inland, then carried by night on secondary roads to the new A3XX Aeroconstellation complex at Toulouse. Production will eventually settle at one aircraft per week.

Source: Flight International