Sunday, April 10, 2005


For some time I have been wanting to write some stuff on the Boeing-Airbus mêlée, since it is reminiscent of the greater economic struggle being waged between the USA and the EU. Its example can thus not only highlight the pitfalls but also the mutual benefits of economic interaction between adversaries which sport both striking similarities as well as radical differences in philosophy and approach.

Initially, I meant to keep the story short, but as I began digging into the ample material available on the Net, it became apparent I'd need to make this a fleshed-out post around several chapters or else leave the task to others. Indeed, the intricate Boeing/Airbus Saga is something deserving far more attention than the piecemeal media reporting, and I hope that in the nearby future some author will take up the challenge to devote a volume on the subject. In the meantime, I hope the following post, structured around five chapters, can shed some light and offer new insights on a conflict which, while it threatens to turn ugly, also holds the promise of substantial mutual benefits. The chapters are:

1.) A new era: the Airbus A380

2.) A Brief History of Airbus

3.) The Boeing/Airbus Feud

4.) A difficult choice - and Boeings dilemma

5.) Conclusions

Today, I will submit the first two chapters.

1.) A new era: the Airbus A380.

It must have been a glorious moment for the quartet of key European leaders President Chirac, Chancellor Schroeder, PM Zapatero and PM Blair, marred as all four of them had been for different reasons, when on January 18, 2005, the Airbus management, before a 5,000-strong audience and in the presence of said gentlemen, revealed its new flagship, the A380, to the press. The 73-meter (238ft 8in) long triple-deck passenger jet was proudly displayed in Airbus’s gigantic assembly hall, the biggest building (490m x 250m x 46m) on the site of the so-called Jean-Luc Lagadère factory in Blagnac near Toulouse. The A380, which will eclipse the Boeing 747 as the world’s biggest airliner, can seat 555 passengers in a three-class arrangement, but this can be raised to 800, which is why the official denomination is A380-800. Its specifications are impressive: a wing span of 79.8 m (261ft 10 in), a height of 24.1m (79ft), and a maximum takeoff weight of 560 tons (1,234,600 lb). Thrust is provided by four 302 to 374kN (68,000 to 84,000lb) Rolls Royce Trent RB 967 turbofans or four EA GP-7267 turbofans (EA = Engine Alliance, a joint venture of General Electric and Pratt&Whitney).

Airbus A380; image by Airbus Industrie

For all its innovative technology like advanced avionics and novel materials (a.o. a fibre-aluminium composite material called GLARE), the outward appearance of the A380 is, apart from its size, rather conventional. Indeed, were it not for the double row of windows, the big Airbus would simply look like an upscaled version of the veteran A330/340. That is not to say no trails leading to a distinctly different look have been considered, since one of the numerous models provided for a very wide (twelve seats abreast) rather than high airframe as well as twin tails. But in the end the designers returned to the trusted basic passenger’s jet configuration as we have known it for forty years, a sleek cylindrical body upon swept-back wings with engines podded underneath. It should also be noted that this conventional layout greatly attributes to easier pilot conversion and commonality throughout the Airbus family.

Airbus A380; image by Airbus Industrie

The massive Airbus is, as everyone realizes, the first true competitor to Boeings 35-year old 747. And it shows: on the very day the A380 was presented, January 18, 2005, Airbus could boast 149 firm orders. The company claims the break even point for the gigantic investment is some 260 orders. By contrast, sales for the Jumbo have all but dried up, the few examples sold yet being mostly intended for cargo.

b.) A Brief History of Airbus

The story of Airbus is a study in microcosm of successful European cooperation. It all started in 1970 when Frances Aerospatiale and Germany’s Deutsche Aerospace merged to form the Airbus Industrie GIE (Groupement d’Intérêt Economique, literally Group of Economic Interest) consortium, as by the late sixties it had become increasingly clear that no single European aircraft company could compete effectively with US giants like Lockheed, McDonnell-Douglas and especially Boeing. In 1971 Spains Construcciones Aeronauticas S.A. (CASA) joined, and 1972 saw the launch of Airbus’ first aircraft, the A300, which could transport 226 passengers in a two-class layout. It is interesting to note that by introducing this plane, Airbus directly entered the middle class segment of commercial airliners.

The mid-seventies were by far the toughest years for the young consortium with very few new orders placed (none in 1976!). All that changed after a desperate attempt by Airbus to break into the US market when the US’s bankrupt Eastern Airlines leased 23 A300B4s (initially four) at very favourable conditions (a.o. with maintenance and US certification paid for by Airbus). This apparently boosted airline confidence in the new company enough to resume placing orders. And so, by the beginning of 1978 Airbus had 133 plus firm orders as well as a market share by value of 26 percent. 1978 also saw the introduction of the A310, in outward appearance a shorter A300 but incorporating such novelties as a two-man cockpit and CRT displays instead of dials.

In 1979 British Aerospace became Airbus’s fourth full member. In 1984 the A320 entered the market, setting a new standard as the first commercial jet with fly-by-wire and sidesticks. Now while the A300 and the shorter A310 were essentially middle-class jets, the A320 was meant to be Airbus’s competitor for the so-called "narrow bodies" (single aisle, short range), competing in that field with jets like Boeings 727 and 737, BAC’s One-Eleven and Douglas’ DC-9. The A320 was the first of Airbus’ "small" family, a range that since 1984 has seen the emergence of the A318, for 100 passengers, and the A319, capable of transporting 125 passengers. Linking Airbus’s lower manufacturing end to its middle class was the A321, essentially a longer A320.

Having thus established itself in the market for small and medium-sized commercial jet planes, Airbus then embarked, in 1987, on the production of jets in the "widebody" segment (double aisle, medium to long range), and these would eventually become known as the four-engined A340 (launched 1993) and the twin-engined A330 (launched 1994).

In 1991, Airbus began talks with major international airline companies to investigate the development of a new super-huge passenger aircraft, of which production finally started in 2000. Before the advent of the 747’s first true nemesis though, in 2002, almost ten years after the introduction of the A340, came first two larger versions of this plane with extended fuselages, the A340-600 and the A340-500.

It should furthermore be noted that only in 2001, thus thirty years after its creation, Airbus formally became a single integrated company instead of a conglomerate. Shareholders in the new Airbus company are EADS (European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, being the merger between Aerospatiale Matra SA of France, Daimler Chrysler Aerospace AG of Germany and Construcciones Aeronauticas SA of Spain), with 80%, and the UK’s BAE SYSTEMS, with 20% of the new stock.


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