Usually, the jet race is between Boeing and Airbus, but occasionally there is a twist. The less than successful A340 is often compared to Ilyushin’s Il-96. Both are quad jets, both around the same size and with roughly the same specifications. Both are a product of a similar era. But which one is better? Or, as some might prefer to put it, which one is less bad?
A pair of lame-duck aircraft
The Ilyushin Il-96 came out of Russia. Aeroflot was the launch customer in 1992. Except for a handful going to Cuba, the plane has only ever sold in Russia. Not that it ever sold well there. Only 30 have been built to date. Even with government money behind it, the Il-96 is a financial black hole.
But there’s not much sniggering going on over that down in Toulouse. The Il-96’s European cousin, the A340, was a substantial commercial failure for Airbus. It was produced between 1991 and 2011, selling 380 aircraft. But the fuel-guzzling quad jet plane was never a hit with customer airlines. Today, just 135 remain in service with airlines like Lufthansa, Iberia, South African Airways, and Mahan Air.
Comparing the specs
Both manufacturers produced variants of the aircraft, but the primary versions were Il-96-300s and A340-300s. Let’s briefly touch on the specifications for both.
The Il-96-300 was slightly faster. It could cruise at 0.84 Mach, whereas the A340-300 flew in its wake, cruising at 0.82 Mach.
On the flip side, the A340-300 had a superior range. It could fly 13,500 kilometers in one hop, whereas the Il-96-300 could only manage 11,500 kilometers. Both aircraft were marketed as long-haul planes, so range mattered.
The A340-300 could take off heavier. Its maximum takeoff weight was 276.5 tonnes. The Il-96-300 had a maximum takeoff weight of 250 tonnes. But the A340-300 needed more runway. It required a 3,000-meter runway to get into the air, whereas the Il-96-300 could do the job with a 2,340-meter runway.
In terms of carrying capacity, both were similar. Depending on the configuration, an A340-300 could carry between 250 and 290 passengers. The Il-96-300 could carry between 237 and 300 passengers.
Most people give the winning prize to Airbus. But in fairness, a lot of that comes down to perception issues regarding Russian made aircraft. Purely on specifications, the Il-96-300 is faster, lighter, and can access more airports than the A340-300. But the A340 wins hands down when it comes to range and payload.
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Are you prepared to fly on a Russian made aircraft?
But perception does matter. A lot of people are not prepared to fly on a Russian made aircraft. If the Il-96 was made elsewhere, say in Seattle or Toulouse, it could have proved a very successful plane.
It should also be stated that the Il-96 was never designed to compete with Airbus. Illyushin, at best, was only ever going to be a Soviet-bloc aircraft manufacturer selling to a select range of airlines and countries (a little bit like Comac in 2020).
Originally, the IL-96 was designed as a direct replacement for the Ilyushin IL-62M and IL-86 to meet the requirements of an Aeroflot order. As the old Soviet bloc unraveled in the 1990s, so did the demand for Illyushin aircraft from former client states. Had history not gone in that direction, more Il-96s would have sold.
New fuel-efficient twin-engine planes made A340 and Il-96 redundant
A generation later, with new fuel-efficient long-range twin-engine aircraft on the market, these old clunkers designed in the 1980s are less attractive than ever. Even when comparing the Il-96 with the unfashionable Boeing 777, the Boeing burns less fuel per kilometer and can carry significantly more passengers at the same time.
Of course, you can buy a pair of Il-96s for the price of one shiny Boeing and still have millions of dollars to spare.
In terms of safety, the Russian made airliners have a poor reputation. This may also have prevented some potential Il-96 buyers from beating on Illyushin’s front door. But it is worth pointing out that there has never been a fatality on an Il-96. There haven’t even been any serious incidents.
The A340 can boast a similar fatality-free pedigree. The A340s have been involved in quite a few incidents, but there were far more of them around. The vast majority of incidents were attributed to human error or malfeasance rather than an issue with the aircraft.
Most notably, a Sabena A340 landing in Brussels in 1998 suffered a nose gear collapse. Investigations later determined a fatigue crack as the cause. After repairs, the aircraft kept flying for another 16 years.
Clearly, from a safety perspective, both the A340 and Il-96 are decent aircraft.
Both aircraft tough to fly
From a flying perspective, many A340 pilots actively disliked that aircraft type. The plane straddled an era when flying was shifting from a hands-on experience to a more automated, technology-driven procedure. The result was a complicated plane to fly. Plus, the rapid pace of technological change also made the A340 redundant quickly.
That said, the Il-96 wasn’t an uncomplicated aircraft either. The Il-96 was noisier and an altogether less smooth aircraft to fly on.
In the end, it didn’t matter much. The advent of extended-range twin-engine aircraft put the nail in the coffin of the A340 before the lid had barely opened. Perception issues and barriers to doing business in Russia meant the IL-96 was never going to take off in most countries.
So, which is better?
Arguing about which is better becomes a subjective exercise. You can become all purist about it, add things up, give different things weight. If you did that, the IL-96 performs well. If you ask people who know about such things, many will say the IL-96 is the better aircraft.
But that goes against the grain. The A340 might be a white elephant, but it’s an Airbus white elephant. For a lot of people, especially in the wake of the problems at Boeing, Airbus is a bit of a sacred cow. Even their duds are good. Just look at the A380!
Personally, I’d call it for the A340. I don’t have a particular barrow to push for Airbus, but I like the A340’s superior range and payload. Perception does matter and I like the sense of assurance I get on an Airbus aircraft. It is hard to put a value on that but if two aircraft were at the gate, one was an A340 and one was an IL-96, my instinct would be to head for the A340.