The glorious quadjet that is the Airbus A340 has been a staple of many airlines’ long-haul fleets for almost three decades. With 375 of the type sold, it wasn’t a bestselling aircraft, but was bought by more than 60 different airlines and leasing companies. Today, only around 30 A340s are seen flying per day.
The A340 was set for success
The A340’s arrival on the aviation scene looked to be gold plated. At the time of its development, longer ETOPS rules had not come into play, so four engines were the best bet for airlines operating long-haul routes over large bodies of water.
Airbus thought the A340 would be a strong contender against the giants of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, and was its next move after the relative success of its A300 and A310 families. It was already in a strong position with its A320 family of aircraft, but wanted to hit the big league with a big plane.
With US operators preferring a twinjet, Asian operators calling for quadjets and European airlines somewhat split on the choice, Airbus hedged its bets and developed both. The result was the A330, aimed at the Americas, and the A340, targeted at Asian operators.
Initially, the A340 looked to be set for success. It snagged 89 orders by the end of the Paris Air Show in 1987, after being officially announced just prior to the event. The first A340-200 began service with Lufthansa in March 1993. Air France took delivery of its first A340-300 around the same time.
Airbus’ A340-200, dubbed the World Ranger, set a series of records by flying around the globe with only one refueling stop from the 1993 Paris Air Show. From Le Bourget, it flew to New Zealand, refueled, and then flew onwards to Paris, completing its round the world trip in 48 hours and 22 minutes.
Over the ensuing years, the A340 was ordered by many flagship airlines, including Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. Singapore deployed the A340 on the world’s longest route, connecting Singapore to Newark with an all-business class A340-500. Virgin Atlantic became the launch customer of the A340-600 in 2002, operating 19 of the type, alongside 10 A340-300s.
Today, the A340 is a rare sight in our skies, but why?
Why it failed
The fuel consumption of the A340 was its Achilles heel. The upgrading of ETOPS for 180 minutes meant the A340 was competing against the behemoth that was the Boeing 777 for market share. Two engines cost less to run than four, so for many airlines, it was a no-brainer to switch out the quadjet for a more efficient twin.
Adding to its problems was the dramatically rising fuel costs after the turn of the millennia. By the time the Global Financial Crisis hit in 2008, fuel costs had ballooned to almost $4 a gallon, from under $0.5 a gallon 10 years before. The A340 was no longer cost-effective, and it slowly began to disappear from our skies.
The final sucker punch for the Airbus quadjet came with the onset of COVID last year. In January 2019, around 120 A340s were operating each day. By January 2020, this had naturally fallen to around 80 – 90 per day, as the type’s attrition continued. But as the world locked down amid the spread of the novel coronavirus, the A340’s exit accelerated at an unbelievable rate.
By the end of March, few days were seen with more than 20 aircraft flying per day. Its operations hit rock bottom on April 6th, when just 13 A340s took flight across the world. Things picked up across the summer, but the recovery continued to be choppy.
Today the number of A340s in operation continues to struggle to hit more than 30 per day. Most days, just 25 or so aircraft take wing. Numerous airlines have retired the type, including its most prolific operator Lufthansa. It has permanently decommissioned its A340-600s, but remains committed to bringing the A340-300 back into service.
Virgin Atlantic has removed the type entirely, as has SAS. Air Belgium has retired one of its final four, and Iberia’s last left in August last year. While the aircraft remains in service with around 20 operators, each only has a handful of the type remaining. The A340, whether considered a success or a failure, is now a rare sight for passengers.