We all know Airbus well as a major manufacturer of narrowbody and widebody commercial aircraft. It has competed with Boeing since the 1970s, with the two now forming a dominant duopoly in the market. But what else stands out about this successful company and its aircraft? Here are 10 interesting things you may not know.
1. Airbus started as a collaboration between European countries
The duopoly of Boeing and Airbus dominates commercial jet aircraft manufacturing today. Airbus, though, has a very different background from Boeing.
Boeing was one of the world’s first aircraft manufacturers – starting over 100 years ago as a military supplier during the First World War and then expanding into mail services. Airbus started much later, as a Europe-wide program, with government backing.
The company was formed in 1970, with several European manufacturers coming together to take on the larger US manufacturers (not just Boeing at this time). Airbus developed its first aircraft, the A300, to compete with Boeing’s popular jets.
This was a true Europe-wide effort. France would lead the construction of the cockpit and central fuselage. Wings were manufactured in the UK, other fuselage sections in West Germany, flaps and spoilers in Holland, and the tailplane in Spain. This collaboration has continued today.
2. The A300 was the first twin-engine widebody aircraft
Boeing’s first jet, the 707, had four engines. The 727 was a trijet, and the 747, of course, was a quadjet. It launched the 737 as its first two-engine aircraft, but Airbus chose instead to develop a two-engine widebody. The A300 entered service in 1974 with Air France. Boeing’s first twin widebody, the 767, did not enter service until 1982.
This worked for its business model. It was initially intended for European flights, although there was also interest from North America. With two engines, it was more economical. And with the introduction of ETOPS rules in the 1980s, it went on to operate transatlantic as well.
3. All Airbus cockpits are the same
Commonality between aircraft is an important selling point for manufacturers, enabling simpler cross-training of crew and lower cost of maintenance. Since the A320’s introduction, Airbus has used an almost identical cockpit layout (and handling procedures) across both narrowbody and widebody cockpits.
On the A320 family, pilots can move between family aircraft. Between other types of Airbus aircraft, training is significantly reduced. This means pilots can be rapidly trained to fly new types, and can switch between aircraft for greater fleet flexibility.
4. The A320 was the first fly-by-wire aircraft
There have been many improvements in commercial jets since their introduction in the 1950s. Today manufacturers are focussing on efficiency improvements, as well as technology and passenger comfort. But looking back, one of the most significant advances was the switch to fly by wire technology. This essentially replaces manual hydraulic controls with electronic controls.
Airbus was the first manufacturer to introduce this, launching it on the A320 in 1987. Airbus has since used the technology on all aircraft, with Boeing rolling it out more slowly (and retaining more manual overrides over computer-controlled actions than Airbus).
5. The A320 overtook the 737 as the most sold modern aircraft
For many years, Boeing led with most aircraft ordered and delivered, but in 2019, Airbus moved ahead in orders (15,193 against Boeing’s 15,136). With the 737 MAX problems, it is catching up on deliveries too, but things could change as the MAX returns to service and the industry picks up post-COVID.
But the title of most built aircraft ever belongs to neither Airbus nor Boeing. Douglas Aircraft achieved this with the DC-3. With several military variants, over 16,000 aircraft were built (but only 607 of these were DC3s for airline use).
6. It has entered the regional market with the A220
Airbus and Boeing are closely matched in offering in most markets. However, Airbus sets itself apart in the smaller aircraft market. The A318 and A319 (as the smallest members of the A320 family) offered a similar capacity to Boeing’s smallest 737 models up to the Next Generation series. Boeing has moved larger with the 737 MAX.
Conversely, Airbus has gone further into the 100-150 seat market with the A220. This came about with Airbus’s acquisition of the Bombardier CSeries in 2018. The smaller CS100 became the A220-100, and the larger CS300 the A220-300.
Boeing made a similar move to smaller aircraft when it rebranded the MD-95 as the Boeing 717 after its merger with McDonnell Douglas. It has been out of production, though, since 2006, keeping Boeing out of the market.
The A220 has seen particular success during the slowdown of 2020 and into 2021. With its lower capacity and excellent efficiency, it has been put back into service much faster than other aircraft. In August 2020, Simple Flying called it the world’s most active aircraft, with an impressive 93.75% of the global fleet operational.
7. It has built the largest ever commercial aircraft
This is one fact we all know, but it is worth reinforcing its significance. Airbus conceived the A380 as a competitor to the popular Boeing 747 – the only manufacturer to attempt to take on the Queen. Boeing had considered two full-length decks for the 747 but could not make it work under safety requirements.
Airbus achieved two decks – and offered a typical three-class capacity of 544. But it could have gone up to 868 in an all-economy layout. For comparison, the 747-8 offers a typical three-class capacity of 467.
While it has not been as successful as hoped, the A380 is an amazing engineering success and an important aviation milestone. With the move to twin engines now well established and the reduced demand anticipated post-2020, it seems unlikely we will see anyone looking to repeat an aircraft of this size in the foreseeable future.
8. Airbus also has extensive helicopter, space, and military divisions
While we know and follow commercial aircraft developments closely, remember that Airbus is also active in other aviation sectors. Commercial aircraft represents 74% of revenues (according to 2018 results).
It has significant helicopter production. According to its own data, it is the largest helicopter producer globally, with products in civilian and military use in 150 countries.
And in defense, it has long been involved in military tankers and refueling, with an A310 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT), followed by an A330 MRRT. It has also been a partner in the Eurofighter military jet development.
9. It operates one of the largest cargo transport aircraft in the world
Both Airbus and Boeing have large fuselage transport aircraft to move aircraft parts from suppliers around the world. Boeing’s Dreamlifter (based on a 747-400 airframe) is the largest by length and wingspan. Still, Airbus’s BelugaXL beats it for cargo volume.
The BelugaXL is based on an A330-200 airframe (its smaller predecessor, the Beluga, is based on the A300). It offers an incredible 2,209 cubic meters of fuselage space. The Dreamlifter manages 1,840 cubic meters.
Interestingly, the impressive six-engined Antonov An-225 is also smaller in capacity. This only has cargo space of 1,300 cubic meters. But it can carry the heaviest load of any transport aircraft – with a maximum take-off weight of 640 tonnes.
10. Airbus plans to launch a new series of zero-emission aircraft by 2035
The move to carbon reduction and lower emissions presents many challenges and opportunities for manufacturers. Airbus made a major move in this area in 2020, announcing a project to develop hydrogen-powered zero-emission aircraft.
It has proposed three aircraft designs and plans to select the first to be developed by 2025. This is likely to be either a regional turboprop or larger (up to 200 passenger capacity) turbofan aircraft. It also has released a new concept of a blended wing aircraft. This is a big move away from traditional aircraft design and gives an improved space for hydrogen storage and distribution – as well as a whole new style of passenger cabin.
Along with this, there are plans to look at the overall concept and viability of hydrogen use. This will include not just aircraft and engine technology but its cost and the development of airport infrastructure. Another proposal in early 2021 seeks to gather support for developing Paris airports as hydrogen hubs to spur initial use.
We have covered a lot of information on Airbus and its aircraft here, but there is plenty more to discuss. Feel free to highlight more interesting details about the company and its products in the comments.