Why Did Airbus Build The A320 Family?

The Airbus A320 is the most ubiquitous aircraft flying in the sky. It has won airlines’ hearts, enabled cheap short-haul travel, and has become the main rival of the Boeing 737. But why did Airbus build it? And how has it become so popular?

Employees of Aerospatiale pose near the new Airbus A320 airliner before its inaugural flight, 22 February 1987. Photo: Getty Images

Why did Airbus build the A320?

In the early 80s, there were only a few single-aisle, twin-jet aircraft that suited domestic inter-Europe travel. The BAC One-Eleven, while highly praised, was ready for replacement. Options on the market were limited to be the American made Boeing 737-200 or DC-9.

There was no European short-haul aircraft for airlines to purchase. Governments saw a hole in the market that was being swallowed up by foreign competitors.

Airbus had recently completed the Airbus A300 and had been successful with the A310. While they were a good pick, governments at the time decided not to hand over the single-aisle project to Airbus just yet, and let other manufactures have a run at the marketplace.

Failed attempts to create an aircraft

The first group of aircraft builders consisted of MAC, Saab, Casa, and MBB. They initially created a rear-engine 180-200 seater aircraft called the Europlane. However, as they worked on it, they realized its mission profile was almost identical to the current Airbus A310. They dropped that design and started again from scratch.

Delta A310
The Europlane was almost identical to the Airbus A310. Photo: Delta

At the same time, another team was hard at work coming up with their version for the single-aisle competition. This team consisted of Fokker, Dornier, and Hawker-Siddeley. They created a 150 seater short-range aircraft, but it did not carry enough passengers.

According to Flight Global in 1997, there was a third-team of France’s Dassault creating a longer-range version of the Mercure, eventually partnering with McDonnel Douglas on a new medium-range transport plane. Lack of sales of the Mercure ended this aircraft concept.

The first A320 concept

The lack of developments in the competitive European market frustrated governments, so they pushed for a new consortium consisting of Airbus suppliers (but not Airbus itself). They created the Joint European Transport program (JET) and looked to build a new single-aisle aircraft that could carry 163 passengers.

JET developed three concepts, ranging from 130 seats up to 188 seats, each with two engines. It would have a speed of Mach 0.84, which was faster than the Boeing 737 at the time.

The suppliers of Airbus realized that they would have to all work together to build this aircraft and create a complex framework to do so… which was the whole point of Airbus in the first place. So the project was finally handed over to Airbus to take charge and turn the concepts into an actual plan. Airbus created three designs called SA1, SA2, and SA3.

Little did Airbus know at the time, but they had just outlined the A319, A320, and A321.

Airbus, A321 Manufacture, Toulouse
The different suppliers realized they would need to work together anyway, so why not work under Airbus? Photo: Getty Images

Bringing the A320 concept to market

Airbus decided that the first concept it would build would be the SA2/A320. They brought Delta Air Lines onboard as a consulting airline who stipulated they were looking for a two-class, 150-seater jet aircraft. Airbus would use this demand as a baseline for its new aircraft, although Delta Air Lines would never actually order the plane in the end as its A319 and A320 fleet comes from the merger with Northwest. It would, however, order the Airbus A321 and A220 many years later.

However, going with the Delta idea annoyed local European airlines like Lufthansa (and its patron, the German Government), who wanted a new quad long-range aircraft a la Boeing 707. Airbus had only built twin-jet airliners at the time and lacked a competitor to the Boeing 707 or 747.

Airbus believed that the future lay with new technologies (such as fly-by-wire) and wanted to test these products on a smaller aircraft first (if anything went wrong, the plane would be close to an airport and not over the sea). Plus, the pressure from other governments to build a competitor to the Boeing 737 was rising fast. In the end, Lufthansa relented.

Unofficially, several airlines made intentions to purchase during the 1981 Paris Air Show despite Airbus not making the aircraft available for order. Air France was the first with a letter of intent for 25 aircraft, with British Caledonian, Cyprus Airways, and others following.

Frustratingly, while Airbus finalized the blueprints, orders were pending, and the plane ready to be officially launched, infighting between the suppliers over who would build what caused the aircraft to become delayed by three years. In 1986, the plane got a kickstart when Northwest Airlines made an order for 100 A320s.

It was then that they discovered one unexpected benefit of its choice to use fly-by-wire.

Airbus A320
A Northwest Airlines Airbus A320. Photo: Fran Jurado via Wikimedia

Why Fly-By-Wire changed the game for Airbus

One of the unsung advantages of a fly-by-wire system, using electronics instead of mechanical components to control the aircraft, is that it can be replicated to other aircraft while keeping the same flying characteristics.

This means that an Airbus pilot on an A320 could potentially fly other Airbus aircraft without having to qualify for a new type rating.

Realizing this, Airbus went back to finish its plans for the A319 and A321, both a shrink and a stretch of the existing A320 aircraft. With fly-by-wire controls, Airbus could tweak the flying characteristics to match the A320 and make them handle virtually the same.

From here, the rest is history. Airbus would go on to develop several variants of the original A320 depending on the needs of an airline. They would make the A319 and A318 (the baby bus), and stretch up to an A321 and potentially one day the A322.

Airbus would update the famous A320 concept with the neo, new engine option, which would bring cosmetic improvements, passenger comforts, and an improvement in fuel efficiency. Finally, Airbus would release the A321LR and XLR, which would replace cargo space for fuel tanks and push the range of the humble A320 to astronomical proportions.

The A321XLR has a 4,700nm range. Image: Airbus

The A320 is truly the most versatile aircraft platform ever built, and its flexible design is a testament to the original engineers from the 1980s. The A320 would finally eclipse its rival, the Boeing 737, as the best selling passenger aircraft in late 2019.

But this age of the Airbus A320 might be coming to a close, with the news that France plans to develop a successor to the Airbus A320 in the next ten years. 

What do you think of this development journey? Do you like the A320? Let us know in the comments.