50 Years of Airbus – A Reflection

Airbus is celebrating its 50th birthday next week. From a couple of signatures on a MOU, Airbus has grown to a manufacturing powerhouse selling a range of commercial aircraft, helicopters, defence and space equipment, becoming one of the biggest businesses in Europe.

50 years of Airbus - A reflection
Airbus is turning 50 on 29th May 2019. Photo: Michael Rehfeldt via Flickr

In 1969, European aircraft manufacturers were outperformed by the big US aircraft manufacturers – Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas. In a moment of co-operation that seems impossible today, Germany and  France got together to sign off on a new partnership to jointly develop a new aircraft called the Airbus. And it grew from there.

Fast forward 50 years …

This writer’s last flight was on an Airbus A320. Hardly surprising as 78% of all the aircraft Airbus delivered last year were A320s. It was an unremarkable flight, a one hour hop up the east coast of Australia to a small regional airport. That small airport gets just five jet flights a day and four of those five flights use Airbus aircraft. It’s a little statistic that is a fragment of a much larger story – the success and ubiquity of Airbus aircraft around the world.

50 years of Airbus - a reflection
A Jetstar A320 at Sydney Airport. Photo: Simon Sees via Flickr

In 2019, Airbus delivered its 12,000th plane to Delta and sees its aircraft flying to every continent, even Antarctica. It’s a big leap for a company that began in 1969.

An Airbus highlight

Airbus has manufactured 11 different types of aircraft and there have been variants on most of these 11 types.

50 Years of Airbus – A Reflection

The A300 was the first aircraft Airbus manufactured. It was the world’s first twin engined wide body aircraft. This writer has clear memories of watching them land in Sydney in the early 1980’s and later his first flight on one. The A300 were slow sellers to start with. Air France were the first to fly it. But by the late 1970’s the aircraft was selling well and 561 were made before production ceased in 2007.

50 years of Airbus - a reflection
The Airbus A300 – the world’s first twin engined twin aisle aircraft. Photo : Michael Rehfeldt via Flickr

The A300 succeeded because it was smaller and lighter than the three engined mid sized competitors from US manufacturers. This made the A300 more fuel efficient and cheaper to operate. The aircraft remains in service with several airlines and FedEx retains the largest fleet of them. Good design never goes out of fashion and discussion continues about the production of a A300 variant – the A300neo.

The rise and fall of the A380

Perhaps less successful was the more recent A380. The distinctive mega aircraft took to the skies in 2005 with high hopes, and was soon catching the eye at airports around the globe. The A380 was meant to help tackle that bane of modern aviation – airport congestion.

In and era of high fuel costs, the four engined aircraft wasn’t cheap to operate. A380’s cost nearly USD$30,000 per hour to operate, about 10 times the cost of a smaller aircraft like an A320. Airports, initially enthusiastic, found A380s took up a lot of apron space and required some significant investments in airport infrastructure.

Finally, airlines found there were limited routes that warranted such a large aircraft. But passengers generally loved the A380, finding it quiet and spacious. And the extra space encouraged innovations like onboard showers and personal apartments – albeit only for a lucky few.

50 years of Airbus - a reflection
The A380 wasn’t a big commercial success for Airbus but was a big hit with passengers. Photo: Peter Lavender via Flickr

Airbus has announced that it is ceasing production of the A380 in 2021. Airbus notes that, as of 30th April 2019, 290 A380s had been ordered, 235 delivered and 233 were operating around the world.

What’s the future for Airbus ?

The future of Airbus and the future of airline manufacturing around the world seems to lie with making light, fuel efficient, long distance smaller aircraft. Qantas has put out a challenge to both Boeing and Airbus to come up with a variant on an existing mid sized aircraft that will see it able to fly Sydney – London nonstop.  

Airbus’s greatest success has been the A320. It’s probably no surprise. It’s a reliable, fuel efficient workhorse that includes the A318, A319, A320neo and A321 in the ‘family’. The A321 is a stretched version of the A320 and the A318 and A319 are slightly smaller versions. As of the end of 2018, Airbus had sold over 8,500 aircraft from the A320 family, making it the world’s most successful commercial aircraft.

50 years of Airbus - a reflection
Delta is one of many carriers to buy the popular A220. Photo : Delta News Hub via Flickr

The latest aircraft in the Airbus catalogue is the A220. It’s been flying for the past six years as the Bombardier C Series, and has proven particularly popular with short haul European carriers. It’s a continuation of a trend towards smaller, fuel efficient aircraft and a marked turn around from the era of A380s and 747s.

For any business, large or small, to survive 50 years is something to note. In the high cost, high stakes world of commercial aircraft manufacturing, it is a triumph. Last year, Airbus made 806 aircraft; it’s competitor Boeing made 800. Next week, on 29th May, Airbus is marking its 50th birthday with a formation flyover featuring each of the aircraft types it makes. It’s probably going to be a big week at Toulouse.

Got a thought on Airbus and its 50th birthday? Comment below.