By T. A. Heppenheimer, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
During the 1970s, Europe's Airbus Industrie emerged to become the
strongest rival of Boeing, the world's top
commercial planebuilder. Though based in Europe, Airbus had its origins in
the work of an American executive, Frank Kolk of American
Airlines. It was 1966; Boeing had just announced that it would build
the enormous 747 airliner. This wide-body jet
represented a huge leap beyond the biggest jetliners of the day: the
Boeing 707 and the Douglas
Kolk took the view that the airlines needed something intermediate in
size, carrying more passengers than a 707 or a DC-8 but fewer than a 747.
He wanted a wide-body layout, featuring a big cabin with two aisles. But
whereas those other jets had four engines, his called for only two.
In Washington, his concept for a widebody twinjet soon bumped up
against federal regulations. On a number of routes, those that crossed the
Rockies or flew over oceans, regulations called for a minimum of three
engines to provide safety if an engine shut down in flight. Three-engine
designs thus shaped the American jetliners—the McDonnell Douglas DC-10
and Lockheed L-1011—that
grew out of Kolk's initiative. On other routes, a twinjet indeed could
comply with the safety regulations.
In Europe, however, America's regulations did not apply. At the French
firm of Sud Aviation, the chief engineer
Roger Beteille took the lead in urging Europe to build Kolk's big twinjet.
Such a project was too big for Sud alone to take on, and Beteille won
promises of cooperation from government officials in Britain and Germany.
Together they agreed to build such a plane, calling it the Airbus A-300.
At first, the French part of the effort consisted of nothing more than
Beteille and a secretary. However, the president of France, Charles
de Gaulle, resented U.S. domination of commercial aviation and was
eager to build a French or European airliner that could compete with
American designs. De Gaulle had pinned his hopes to the Concorde
supersonic jet, which just then was encountering delays and cost overruns.
Sud Aviation was building Concorde; De Gaulle sought to rescue this
program by sending a new man, Henri Ziegler, to take charge of that
company. Ziegler also was a strong supporter of the proposed Airbus, and
persuaded De Gaulle to give it increased backing as well.
The first full
double-decker, the Airbus A380, will seat 555
passengers and should begin flying in 2006.
Image courtesy of Airbus
There were close links between the Concorde and Airbus programs, with many
key people working on each in turn. For instance, Ziegler was De Gaulle's
man who rescued Concorde; he then became president and chief executive
officer of Airbus. His successor at Airbus, Bernard Lathiere, had also
been a Concorde man. “I loved Concorde as a mistress and Airbus as a
son,” Lathiere declared. “At age 44, I decided it was time to give up
my mistress and concentrate on my son's upbringing.”
To stir interest within the United States, Airbus leaders selected an
American engine, built by General Electric. This did not suit the British,
who withdrew from the venture in a huff. However, British expertise soon
proved essential in crafting wings for the A-300, That country's firm of
Hawker Siddeley was Europe's strongest company in this area, and soon
joined the program.
Airbus Industrie took shape formally late in 1970. It was a consortium,
an association of corporations, working under French laws governing
multinational cooperative programs that relied on government financing.
The A-300 first flew in October 1972. However, during the next five years
it racked up only 38 orders. In Toulouse, home of Sud, 16 unsold aircraft
sat along a fence outside the plant, their tails painted white and showing
no airline insignia.
It was desperation time, and the desperation increased when a sale to
America's Western Airlines fell through early in 1977. But Airbus had
another prospect in Eastern Airlines.
Its president, Frank Borman, had been urging U.S. planebuilders to build
their own wide-body twinjet but had received no firm response.
Borman now turned to Airbus, arranging to borrow four A-300s for a
six-month trial. He soon found that he liked them. Their reliability was
excellent; better yet, they used up to one-third less fuel than the
L-1011s that he was flying. In the spring of 1978, Borman agreed to
purchase 23 of the new jets.
This was a breakthrough. Eastern was one of America's principal
airlines; its great prestige ensured that other carriers around the world
would take a fresh look at the A-300. During 1978, Airbus went on to sell
a total of 69 such jets. The A-300 won new luster during 1979, the year of
an oil crisis that sharply raised the price of jet fuel. As a twinjet, it
was lighter in weight and used less fuel than the tri-jet L-1011 and
DC-10. Having one less engine, the A-300 also was easier to maintain and
less costly to purchase.
In 1978, Boeing responded to the Airbus challenge by stating that it
would build its own wide-body tri-jet: the 767.
But the 767 existed only on paper, whereas the A-300 was flying with
passengers. Airbus Industrie saw that its own opportunities were expanding
and responded by offering the A-310, a downsized version of the A-300.
As its sales burgeoned, the consortium received subsidies from its
governments that totaled $13.5 billion by 1990. These funds made it
possible to develop important new aircraft, and to win sales by offering
low, low prices. The first step came in 1984, with the new Airbus A320.
This 150-seat airplane aimed at the low end of the market, seeking to
serve numerous routes of short distance that carried only modest numbers
of passengers. The A-320 competed with the Boeing 737
and the McDonnell Douglas MD-80
series, which served those routes as well. But there was plenty of demand
for aircraft of this size, and the A-320 rolled up large numbers of sales.
F-BUAD - an Airbus A300
seen at Farnborough in England, September 1986.
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
In 1986, Airbus took a further leap with another new program, the
A-330/340. This took shape as a single airplane that could accommodate
either two or four engines. The A-330 was the twinjet version; it was
larger than the A-300 and the Boeing 767. The A-340 was the four-engine
version. Built for long range, it served transoceanic routes that covered
world-spanning distances but attracted too few travelers.
Planebuilders serve the world's airlines by offering an array of
designs that cover the most important combinations of range and passenger
capacity. The new A-330/340 put Airbus cleanly into Boeing's class,
permitting it to sell a line of aircraft having similar breadth. Helped by
subsidies, sales of these craft soon were zooming.
In 1989, Airbus posted 412 orders, representing one-third of all
worldwide purchases. In 1990 the Europeans sold the largest number of jets
smaller than the 747. In 1991 they nearly matched Boeing's new orders on
its own turf, in North America. During 1994 Airbus actually overtook
Boeing, winning 125 orders to 120 for this rival.
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author