Airbus has delivered its 10,000th plane – something that few imagined as the first one entered service over 40 years ago. The company has gone from awkward European collaboration to market leader.
The ceremony took place at Airbus’ main base in Toulouse, France. The long-range wide-body A350 XWB – the company’s latest model – was handed over to Singapore Airlines. The carrier is one of Airbus’ key customers, being the first to fly the A380 superjumbo in 2007.
“It’s a a special day for us,” Airbus spokesman Stefan Schaffrath said.
The ceremony, which has been in the planning for months, marked nearly half a century of European cooperation in aviation. Airbus began in the late 1960s as a French-West German-British collaboration to build an advanced widebody twin-engined passenger airliner, the A300.
“At the beginning, Airbus was a very complicated conglomerate that entered the market with a niche product” aerospace analyst Wolfgang Donie said.
This came about after the individual countries’ manufacturers had failed to come up with airliners that could challenge those made by US companies, particularly Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas – even though Europe had often held a technological lead.
The first jetliner in commercial service had been the British de Havilland Comet in 1952, but a series of crashes blamed on metal fatigue effectively ceded the market to Boeing, with its 707, and Douglas, with its DC-8.
By combining their efforts, the European manufacturers reasoned, they could avoid another debacle like the Comet – and pool their engineering and marketing resources to make a more competitive product.
The A300 made its commercial debut in 1974. It sold slowly at first in a market in which it was not clear whether the future lay with supersonic aircraft, like the Franco-British Concorde, or larger three- and four-engined planes like the Douglas DC-10, Lockheed TriStar and Boeing 747. It was almost canceled – but the twinjet design ultimately proved a success, causing Boeing to launch a competing model, the 767, which first flew in 1982.
A shorter version, the A310, followed. Among its customers were East Germany’s state airline Interflug.
But it was the narrowbody A320 series, launched in 1987, that turned Airbus into Boeing’s main rival, eating into sales of the Boeing 737, which Boeing had then chosen to update, rather than replace. Around 7,000 of the planes are now in service – accounting for the vast majority of the company’s sales.
The success of the A320 allowed Airbus to greenlight the larger A330 and A340 planes that would compete with the Boeing 777, and ultimately the A380 superjumbo, larger than Boeing’s venerable 747.
Despite generating widespread publicity, the A380 has failed to recoup the billions it cost to invest, with demand for giant aircraft limited to a small number of routes. It was not Airbus’s only expensive misstep – the A400M military transporter has been plagued by delays and cost overruns and technical problems.
The A350 XWB was almost another misstep – when Boeing launched its high-tech 787 Dreamliner, Airbus’s response was simply to offer an improved version of its existing similar-sized A330. Airlines balked, demanding an all-new design – and Airbus went back to the drawing board, making a plane similar to, but slightly wider than, the 787 (the XWB stands for “extra wide body”).
The A350 has been a huge success for Airbus, with more than 800 orders so far – although fewer than the nearly 1,200 orders for the 787.
Ironically, Airbus later offered an improved version of the A330 anyway – the A330neo – which has attracted nearly 200 orders, drawn by its lower cost.
10,000 down, 7,000 to go
These planes add to Airbus’s backlog of nearly 7,000 aircraft. But the vast majority – around 5,500 – are its bread-and-butter A320-series jets. Airbus delivered 462 planes in the first nine months of 2016, meaning most customers have a long wait.
Sometimes too long – last week, Qatar Airways announced it would place a huge order with Boeing after delays in deliveries of the latest-generation Airbus A320neo. Boeing had been trailing Airbus in orders this year.
But for now, the celebrations in Toulouse are overshadowing any turbulence.