Why Did Airbus Build The A340 Family?

The Airbus A340 fills a unique niche in the Airbus catalog. It is larger than an A300, has a greater range than an A330, and it can fly almost anywhere thanks to four engines. However, in recent years, the A340 has become obsolete and is quickly fading into history. Why did Airbus build the A340 family? And why did the plane cease production?

A330 and A340
Airbus built both the A330 and A340 at the same time. Photo: Getty Images

Airbus always planned to build a range of aircraft from small narrowbodies up to four-engined behemoths, to rival US builders like Boeing. But the journey from an idea to creation is different for each aircraft. For the A340, it begins where we left off with the Airbus A320.

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The story starts with the Airbus A320

In a previous article, we discussed how Airbus came to create the Airbus A320. One of the forks in the road of the A320 was that Lufthansa and other European airlines wanted a four-engined rival to the Boeing 747. In contrast, American customers wanted a competitor to the Boeing 737. Now that the Boeing 737 rival was well on its way to market, Airbus could go back and re-examine the four-engined long-range proposal.

When talking to airlines in the marketplace in the early 1980s, Airbus discovered that opinion was split on the number of engines on the new widebody.

“North American operators were clearly in favor of a twin, while Asians wanted a quad. In Europe, opinion was split between the two. The majority of potential customers were in favor of a quad despite the fact, in certain conditions, it is more costly to operate than a twin. They liked that it could be ferried with one engine out, and could fly ‘anywhere’— ETOPS (extend-range twin-engine operations) hadn’t begun then.” – Airbus vice president for strategic planning, Adam Brown, in ‘Jetliner History’, Norris & Wagner.

A340 tails
The A340 could out-fly a twin jet over large oceans like the Pacific. Photo: Airbus

The ideal new aircraft would be able to:

  • Carry more than 200 passengers
  • Fly over oceans like the Pacific
  • Have range to link distant regions, such as Asia to Europe

While other builders may have struck down one path over another (as Airbus had previously with the A320), this time, they decided to strike a compromise. The aircraft builder would build one airframe and split it over two different models with different engine configurations. A twin-engined medium-haul carrier called the TA9, and a long-haul version called the TA11 (T standing for twin-aisle).

Airbus predicted that sharing technologies, cost, and fuselage design would speed up the process and save around $500 million ($1.5 billion today).

Finalizing the design

From here, Airbus got hard at work designing its two new aircraft models. They came up with the following specifications:

  • TA9 would have a range of 6,100 kilometers (3,300 nautical miles)
  • TA11 would have a range up to 12,650 kilometers (6,830 nautical miles)

They also doubled down on sharing technology amongst the entire Airbus product line, taking the fly-by-wire technology in development for the A320 and using it in this product line.

The A320 had new technology like fly-by-wire. Photo: Getty Images

But some technology didn’t make it into the design. Airbus trialed a select type of wing called the variable camber wing. It would change shape depending on the phase and altitude of the flight. This would reduce fuel burning by around 2%, but in the end, Airbus didn’t believe it was worth the development cost.

Finally, in 1986, Airbus was confident to move forward into production with the two aircraft.

“Airbus Industrie is now in a position to finalize the detailed technical definition of the TA9, which is now officially designated the A330, and the TA11, now called the A340, with potential launch customer airlines, and to discuss with them the terms and conditions for launch commitments.” – Airbus board-chairman Franz Josef Strauß

Allegedly, Airbus originally wanted to call the TA11 the A330 and the smaller aircraft the A340, but airlines didn’t understand why the A340, with a four in it name, didn’t have four engines. Airbus swapped the names around, and the rest is history.

From this point in time, the destinies of the A330 and A340 split. You can read about the A330 in more detail here. 

Bringing the A340 to market

Airbus opened the A330 and A340 for orders in 1987 and initially had ten different airlines order over 130 aircraft. Eighty-nine of these orders were exclusively for the A340, showing that Airbus was right on the money about the aircraft’s demand in the marketplace.

The new plane got a big boost in orders from the failure of a rival. In the latter half of 1987, McDonnell Douglas discovered that its MD-11 was unable to meet the demands of its client Singapore Airlines. Singapore wanted an aircraft that could fly direct from Singapore to Paris in the winter against the wind, a scenario that the MD-11 could not do.

The MD-11 failed to live up to Singapore’s needs. Photo: Getty Images

Thus Singapore canceled its twenty aircraft order and switched to the A340, throwing its confidence behind the model.

In 1991, the first A340 took to the skies, and in 1993, Airbus delivered the first A340 to Lufthansa (the original german airline who wanted a quad jet from Airbus).

The Airbus A340 would go on to set world records later that year, flying from Paris to New Zealand and back in two days with only a five-hour stopover to refuel. This was the first direct flight between Europe and New Zealand, and the world’s longest flight until beaten in 1997.

Alas, the A340’s reign at the top would last less than a decade.

Boeing creates an A340 killer

In the late 90s, Boeing brought to the market the Boeing 777. This aircraft had all the advantages of the A340 when it came to the range and passenger size, but was not as heavy and only used two engines.

Airbus saw what Boeing was up to and tried to cut them off at the pass, building a stretched version of the A340 that could seat more and fly further. But this bigger aircraft burned more fuel and cost more to operate.

Emirates, Connecting Flights, Dubai
Boeing would build extended range versions of the 777 to rival the A340. Photo: Getty Images

But the real killer was the removal of the ocean limitation of twin-jet aircraft. Thanks to the creation of ETOPS, the Boeing 777’s economics simply made more sense for airlines, and sales of the A340 collapsed. In 2005, 144 Boeing 777s were ordered compared to only 15 Airbus A340s.

On 10 November 2011, Airbus announced the end of the A340 program, only twenty years after the design first took flight. Plans for an A340neo rolled into the new A350 program, and Airbus put its effort behind the new A380 (which would last an even shorter amount of time).

The A340 was a useful aircraft and Airbus’ first attempt at taking on the market of the Boeing 747. It was also the last medium-sized quad jet to be built. Its passing ushered in the age of twin-jet aircraft like the A350 and Boeing 777.

What do you think? Have you ever flown on an Airbus A340? Let us know in the comments.