Airbus @ 50 Five Decades of Aviation Transformation

Beginning with the world’s first wide body twin-engine jet airliner, the A300, Airbus has constantly marked many industry milestones as an aerospace giant through its extraordinary journey of 50 years

Issue: 6 / 2019By Vishal ThaparPhoto(s): By Paris Air Show
The Mighty Two: An A350-900 test aircraft and a Spanish Air Force A400M meet between flight demonstrations

It has been five decades of an eventful journey that was transformative not just for Airbus itself in its rise as a global aerospace giant but also the international aviation industry, particularly the civil aviation domain.

It was on May 29, 1969 at the Paris air show in Le Bourget, when a consortium of European aerospace manufacturers came together to sign a historic agreement and went ahead with the ‘Airbus Project’ to develop an aviation complex to challenge the virtual monopoly of the United States. With the launch of the world’s first wide-body, twin engine jet airliner, the A300, Airbus Industries scripted a success story of a dimension far beyond the imagination of its founding fathers.

THE BEGINNING

The A300 aircraft was designed to be smaller, lighter and more economical than its US competitors. There were certain innovations that made this aircraft different - its wide body and raised cabin floor allowed the operating airlines to increase profitability by carrying more cargo. The wings of the aircraft, that were designed by Hawker Siddeley, provided greater lift to the aircraft enabling it to climb faster and attain a level cruise altitude sooner than any other passenger aircraft. The plane could hold upto 270 passengers and had a range of 1,200 nautical miles.

The breakthrough moment came for Airbus in September 1970 with Air France becoming the first customer for the aircraft. The A300 performed its first commercial flight on May 23, 1974, flying from London to Paris for Air France.

There on, there was no stopping Airbus.

Sales for the A300 were initially slow but picked up pace when US carrier Eastern Airlines leased four aircraft in 1977.

RELENTLESS EXPANSION

A smaller A300 derivative, the A310, arrived in 1983, playing a significant role in establishing a bigger profile for Airbus. The company then produced the Airbus A320, the first subsonic airliner with a fly-by-wire flight control system. It made its debut in May 1984. Airbus launched the re-engined A320neo in 2010, powered by Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000G geared turbofan (GTF) and CFM International’s advanced Leap-1A engines. The A320neo subsequently accounting for over 40 per cent of all A320 sales.

On the EDGE of Tomorrow

Airbus is poised to make a leap into urban transport, which promises to revolutionise commuting.

It intends creating an air taxi space in urban transport with a futuristic electrically powered, auto flown vertical take-off and landing craft (eVTOL). They intend introducing these sci-fi flying vehicles as early as in 2020.

Another far reaching initiative is on hybrid-electric propulsion for regional aircraft. It is also working on an enhanced flight vision system (EFVS) for safe landings irrespective of bad weather or availability of ground landing aids.

After the production of the A320 in the mid-80’s the company turned its attention to establishing an extensive wide body lineup of aircraft. The medium-to-long range wide body twin-engine jet airliner, Airbus A330 was developed in parallel to the fourengined A340. A330-300, its first variant took flight in November 1992, and entered passenger service in January 1994.

Due to the slow sales faced by the A330-300, Airbus launched the short fuselage longer range -200 version in 1995. It made its debut in 1998 and gave direct competition to the Boeing 767-300ER. The A340, the A330’s twin long range wide body commercial passenger airliner entered service in 1993. The A340 enjoyed moderate success before the launch of Boeing’s 777 that became the market bestseller.

Airbus turned its attention to building alternatives to Boeing’s most successful and iconic aircraft, including the 747 jumbo jet. The new A380 was envisaged in 1990 as the world’s largest passenger airliner which would eclipse the Boeing 747.

The gigantic aircraft materialized in the mid-2000s, and Singapore Airlines became its first operator in 2007. Certified to carry up to 853 passengers, the full-length double-deck aircraft has a typical seating capacity of 525. It is powered by four Engine Alliance GP7200 or Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofan engines providing a range of 14,800 km.

Extreme Edges Explored

  • 10 years ago the Airbus Corporate Jetliner ACJ319 flew scientists to Antarctica to facilitate research. Landing on a runway of ice, it marked the first time a commercial airliner had flown to Antarctica.
  • On 10 July 2015, Airbus made history when the E-Fan 1.0 conducted the first fully electric flight across the English Channel.
  • Europe’s first mission to Mercury – BepiColombo, which lifted off in October 2018 on a journey to the solar system’s smallest and least-explored terrestrial planet, was an industrial consortium of 83 companies from 16 countries led by Airbus.

The sheer dimension of the A380 have earned it a place in aviation’s hall of fame. But eventually, Airbus in February 2019 announced an end to the production of this Herculean aircraft after 2021 due to lack of further orders.

Over the five decades of its existence, Airbus has undergone exceptional evolution, which is visible from its range of commercial fixed-wing aircraft starting from the A300s to the A380 and the ‘outsized’ cargo aircraft, Beluga.

AIRBUS CHOPPERS

With customers in over 150 countries, Airbus dominates the civilian helicopter segment with a market share of 54 per cent and boasts of the largest product range in this category. It boasts of the world’s largest helicopter product range. Among its bestsellers is the iconic AS365 Dauphin, the fastest transport helicopter in the world with a speed record of 372 km per hour.

AIRBUS MILITARY AND DEFENCE

Airbus is among the 10 global leaders in the defence sector, being the biggest military supplier in Europe. But it faces a challenge of transforming its defence unit into a success story comparable to that of its commercial unit. Among its iconic aircraft are the Airbus Tiger helicopter gunship, and the AS565 Panther naval utility helicopter.

AIRBUS IN INDIA

Airbus made its debut in India in 1986 when Indian Airlines started operating the A310-300. Since then, Airbus has claimed a sizeable chunk of the narrow body, single aisle category in India while the long-haul airplane market continues to be dominated by Boeing. The entire narrow body fleet of IndiGo, India’s largest domestic airline comprises A320-200, A320neo and A321neo.

AIRBUS VERSUS BOEING

The competition between Airbus and Boeing has long established a duopoly in the aviation industry with both companies having control of 99 per cent of the large plane market. Although, Airbus didn’t become a significant competitor to Boeing until the 1990s, the two have had a long withstanding competition ever since.

Airbus became a strong competitor to Boeing with the launch of the Airbus A320, which took on the Boeing bestseller, the 737. Riding on the A320, Airbus has a far more broad-based revenue geography than Boeing, which still has most of its sales centred around the US and the Asia-Pacific.

While Airbus aircraft have suffered no major grounding, Boeing has had to deal with the crisis of confidence in its bestselling 737 Max 7 following two recent fatal crashes of this variant involving the Indonesian- Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 – which killed all 346 persons on board aboard.

The quick growth of Airbus can be attributed to state support as well. However, this has led to legal contest, with respective sides suing for unfair trade practice.

— With inputs from Ayushee Chaudhary