Why Did Airbus Build The A318 Baby Bus?

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The Airbus A318 is the smallest Airbus commercial passenger plane flying today in terms of length, at only 31.44 m (103 ft 2 in) long. But why is it so small? And why was it even built? In this article, we delve into the wonderful world of the Airbus A318 “Baby Bus”.

Airbus A318
The Airbus A318 is the smallest version of the A318. Photo: Getty Images

Where did it come from?

Originally Airbus came to the market with the Airbus A320 as a small short-haul aircraft. This garnered plenty of attention and, in 1997, resulted in Airbus entering a partnership with China and Singapore to develop a new aircraft in the 100-seater range.

This new aircraft was codenamed the AE31X program and would be two different aircraft called the AE316 and AE317. It would fly 2,000 nautical miles (3,700 kilometers) and seat up to 125 passengers in a 3-2 cabin configuration, a spec that sounds somewhat familiar to the Airbus A220 that would come 20 years later.

Alas, differences around in the direction of the project came to a head. Market research showed demand for a sub-100 seater aircraft and the Chinese partners wanted a 150+ seater aircraft. This would come dangerously close to the market occupied by the A320. With a weak business case, the project was abandoned.

Well, not entirely.

Airbus decided to move forward with its concept but base it on the A320 airframe. They shrunk the A320 down to the A319 and then further shrank it again to produce the A318. This way they could reach the few customers that had shown interest in the AE31X program without having to develop a clean-sheet design.

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This version would have some unique advantages beyond being built on the same line as the A320. It would sport more powerful engines and be able to fly up to 136 passengers to a bigger range of 3,100 nautical miles (5,740 km).

A318
Air France is the biggest operator of the Airbus A318. Photo: Getty Images

The A318 development

It would not be so easy for Airbus to bring the concept to market. The development of the Airbus A318 is one that was littered with problems. The first was a lack of demand for aircraft after the 2001 9/11 attacks.

Additionally, many of the airlines that had shown interest in the type backed out of full orders, such as Air China, British Airways and Trans World Airlines (who had an order for 50 Airbus A318s but canceled after being acquired by American Airlines). Other airlines upgraded their orders to the bigger A319 and A320 after the A318 proved to be too niche.

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Worst of all, when the aircraft was being certified by the FAA and EASA, because it was built on a bigger ‘frame’ of the A320, it was not classed as a regional jet. This meant it attracted much higher landing fees for airlines.

A318
TAROM also operates the type. Photo: Getty Images

The A318 today

In the end, only 80 A318 Baby Bus aircraft were sold and, as of 2020, only 65 are still in operation across five airlines. These are Air France, TAROM, British Airways, Titan Airways and a handful of private/government operators.

British Airways operates a special Airbus A318 service from London City to New York JFK via Shannon for refueling. This route is popular with business travelers as passengers can clear US customs in Ireland and land in the US as if it was a domestic flight.  The A318 is configured with just 32 lie flat business class seats, and has taken the iconic Concorde flight number BA1.

Unfortunately, rumors have it that, on March 25th, this service will be suspended due to low demand.

British Airways
BA1 has 32 Business Class seats onboard. Photo: British Airways

Today, the type is becoming increasingly rare. The components themselves are cross-compatible with the rest of the A320 range, and as such, they can often be worth more than the aircraft itself. After all, you can technically buy a whole ‘plane’ of A320 parts for the cost of a cheaper A318. Especially on the second-hand market.

Have you flown on the Airbus A318? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.

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