30 Years of Airbus A340 Operations

30 Years of Airbus A340 Operations

DALLAS — On march 15, 1993, a crowd of aviation enthusiasts watched how a new four-engined aircraft took off from Frankfurt-Main Airport (FRA) in Germany bound for the United States.

It was the Airbus A340-200, entering service with Lufthansa (LH) on its daily flight from Frankfurt to New York (JFK) exactly 30 years ago.

This airplane has changed the course of the commercial aviation industry. And now that its operational life is slowly coming to an end, we wanted to share the legacy the Airbus A340 family has left.

Airways collected the history, variants, records, and the most interesting anecdotes of one of the most iconic aircraft ever produced by Airbus.

Airbus recently moved the first A340-600 ever made to the Aeroscopia Museum in Toulouse, to be enjoyed by aviation enthusiasts from all over the world. Photo: Adrian Nowakowksi/Airways

Early Design History

Work on the Airbus A340 began in the 1970s when Airbus set a goal to develop a family of commercial aircraft to compete with American manufacturers such as Boeing or McDonnell Douglas.

At the time, the airplanes conceived by Airbus were derivatives of the A300B, the first Airbus aircraft, and varied mainly in terms of length, capacity, range, and engines, while the general structure and design of all of them remained quite similar.

While Airbus designated A300B1, B2, B3, and B4, to all the following generations of the A300, the next versions became associated with variants showing significant structural changes. The A300B10, for example, is the aircraft we know today as the A310.

However, with the launch of the A320 family, Airbus created a new designation standard to differentiate single-aisle jets (SA) from twin-aisle jets (TA), and with that, it ended up launching the Airbus TA9 (later known as A330) and TA11 (A340).

The Airbus A340 was first advertised and referred to as the TA11, standing “TA” for “Twin-Aisle” aircraft. Photo: Cradle of Aviation Museum, Garden City, NY

The A340 “Originals”

The Airbus TA11 was released in 1982. It was an aircraft capable of transporting between 240 and 280 passengers within a range of 6830 nautical miles and had the advantage of flying over the Extended-Range Twin-Engine Operation Performance Standards (ETOPS) range thanks to its four CFM56-5C4 engines mounted onto its wings.

The A340 was released in two variants that varied in capacity and range: the shorter A340-200 and the longer A340-300. These were the only versions that featured the well-known CFM56-5C4 engines, which look very small compared to the aircraft’s wings and fuselage, but gave the airplane enough trust to take off fully loaded in less than three miles of distance.

The Airbus A340-200 is capable of carrying between 201 and 250 passengers in a typical layout, being able to fly 6.700 nautical miles non-stop. The -300 variant is a longer version of the type and it was the most successful of the family, with 200 units produced. It was capable of carrying up to 40 passengers more than its younger sister, flying 600 nautical miles further fully loaded.

Three years after the first commercial flight of the A340-200, Airbus launched the next series of the type: the A340-400, 500, and -600 variants, which were essentially stretches of the earlier versions with improved aerodynamics, reinforced wings, more capacity, and longer range.

From those, the -400 variant was discarded afterward, leaving a gap in the naming of the A340 family, while the -500 and -600 versions went on into production.

Lufthansa, along with Air France, were the launch customers of the Airbus A340, which flew commercially for the first time on March 15th, 1993. Photo: Aero Icarus (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stretching the Family

The main advantages of the A340-500 and -600 stretches were their length and range. Unlike the A340 original series, the A340-500 and -600 are fitted this time with larger and more powerful Rolls Royce Trent 553 and Trent 556 engines, respectively. The Airbus A340-500 has a range of 9,000 nautical miles, the larger among the aircraft family.

The A340-600 is the longest member of the A340 series, with 75.36 meters from nose to tail, being capable of transporting up to 370 passengers in a typical three-class configuration. It is the longest aircraft ever made by Airbus, longer than the A350-1000 by 1.5 mt long. The -600 was also the longest commercial passenger jet ever produced until 2010 when the first flight of the Boeing 747-8 took place.

Since its launch in 1982, the Airbus A340 family was advertised as the optimal substitute jet for aging airplanes such as the Boeing 707-300 and the Douglas DC-8. Additionally, among its main features, the A340 included the Fly-By-Wire system and side-stick control inherited from the A320.

Airbus even considered incorporating a variable camber wing, which would eventually improve the aerodynamics of the A340 in specific phases of the flight, but this was later discarded due to the high cost and complexity of the design.

Virgin Atlantic (VS) was the launch customer and largest operator of the Airbus A340-600 version, until its retirement in March 2020. Photo: Tony Bordelais/Airways

A340 Airline Fleets

The Airbus A340 achieved a total of 377 orders since its launch, with many important carriers operating the aircraft until very recently. The launch customers of the A340–200 and -300 variants were Lufthansa (LH) and Air France (AF), respectively, in 1993.

Airbus received 28 orders for the first and shortest version. Apart from LH, the largest and most significant operators of the type were AF, South African Airways (SA), and Philippine Airlines (PR), with between four and six units each.

Airbus built 218 aircraft of the second and most popular -300 variant. The largest operators of this version were AF and Iberia (IB), with 28 and 21 units, respectively. Other carriers like LH and Cathay Pacific (CX) are also remembered for the legacy the A340-300 left in their fleets.

The A340-500 and -600 variants were less successful. However, they ended up playing a key role in Asian airlines such as Etihad Airways (EY), Thai Airways (TG), and Singapore Airlines (SQ), among many others. In total, 131 units of the second generation of the Airbus A340 were built.

Today, fewer than 80 units remain in operation worldwide. However, most of them remain on the ground due to a lack of demand or crew to operate them.

Interestingly, the more common use of the A340 is not as a commercial airliner but as a private or government aircraft that transports VIPs across the world, as its range increases significantly when the payload is subtracted from its total weight.

Azerbaijan Airlines (J2) makes a hybrid use of its A340 fleet, which irregularly switches from commercial to VIP transport when necessary. Photo: Dominik Csordás/Airways

A340 Long-Range Records

Thanks to its design, the Airbus A340 has proven its capability to fly ultra-long-haul routes. Both the A340-200 and A340-500 were designed almost exclusively for this reason, as they sacrifice length and payload in favor of fuel capacity to offer a longer range.

The A340-200 is so short that its wingspan is actually greater than its total length, and it is capable to fly 8,100 nautical miles non-stop in a less typical 240-passenger configuration. Of course, placing fewer seats for passengers decreases total weight and allows the filling of the airplane with much more fuel without exceeding the MTOW.

As part of the demonstration of the new route possibilities with the A340, Airbus planned for the 1993 Paris Air Show a never-seen-before flight from Le Bourget (LBG) to Auckland (AKL) without refueling with a modified Airbus A340-200 registered as F-WWDA.

The aircraft, loaded with extra fuel tanks and 22 people on board, set a new milestone, being able to connect for the first time France with New Zealand on a direct flight, and covering a stunning distance of 10,409 nautical miles in 24 hours and 11 minutes.

This flight was the longest non-stop journey made by a commercial airliner for 12 years until 2005 when a Boeing 777-200LR flew from Hong Kong to London for 11,664 nautical miles without refueling.

The Airbus A340-500 enabled, for the first time in history, connecting Singapore and New York with a direct flight made just for the highest class of passengers. Photo: Yuxi3200 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ22

We can’t talk about aircraft range without mentioning the larger sister, the Airbus A340-500, which held the record for the aircraft with the longest range until 2006, being capable of flying up to 9,200 nautical miles in a reduced, yet typical two-class configuration.

The type was specifically designed for ULH flights and it has allowed the launch and operation of crucial connections around the world like Dubai to New York, which were unthinkable at the time.

However, the climax of the A340-500 operation came with the opening of flight SQ22, which flew direct from New York-Newark Airport (EWR) to Singapore-Changi Airport (SIN) non-stop, setting another record for the longest commercial flight in the world, with an average flight time of 18 hours and 45 minutes.

Singapore Airlines operated these flights between 2004 and 2013 with A340-500s fitted exclusively with Business Class suites, as payload needed to be limited to include more fuel, and also because the flight cost was so high that the airline could only break even selling US$10,000 tickets.

Eventually, SQ halted the flight, switching instead to a connection with New York via Frankfurt with the A380-800 until 2018, when the airline resumed the direct connection thanks to the delivery of the Airbus A350-900 ULR, which continued to prove its profitability five years of its launch.

Rests of F-GLZQ, the Air France A340-300 that starred the “Toronto Miracle” on August 5, 2005, which surprisingly did not claim a single life. Photo: Paul Cardin (CC BY-SA 3.0)

A340 Incidents, Accidents

The Airbus A340 family of jets has not experienced a single death due to any accident or incident. Despite this, some aircraft did experience critical circumstances that on three occasions resulted in the total loss of the aircraft. The main factors that caused incidents were mostly related to issues with the main landing gear.

On August 2, 2005, an AF Airbus A340-300, registered as F-GLZQ, was operating flight 358 from Paris to Toronto when meteorological conditions, including strong winds and precipitations, complicated the landing and resulted in a runway overrun.

Shortly after stopping 300 meters from the opposite runway end, the A340 caught fire and the upper section of the fuselage was completely calcinated. However, none of the 309 people on board suffered serious injuries thanks to the efficient evacuation directed by the crew.

This last incident was later referred to by the media as the “Toronto Miracle.”

Iberia, the second largest operator of the A340-600, relied heavily on the capacity and range of the aircraft to perform its long-haul flights from Madrid to the Americas. Photo: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways

Runway Overruns and the Landing Gear

Another incident occurred on November 9, 2007, when an Iberia (IB) Airbus A340-600, registered as EC-JOH, was operating flight 6463 between Madrid and Quito, continuing later on to Guayaquil. Upon arrival at the first destination, Mariscal Sucre-Quito Airport (UIO), the horizontal visibility on the runway worsened.

As a result, the pilots of flight 6463 performed a long landing. With the high humidity of the pavement, the aircraft could not stop on time and overran the runway. The damage to the aircraft was evident, but all 349 people on board were safely evacuated. The structural damage was sufficient to write off the unit and dismantle it in Ecuador.

Finally, one of the most interesting incidents happened on November 15, 2007, when an Etihad Airways (EY) Airbus A340-600 was performing ground testing prior to delivery to the airline. During one of the standard engine and brakes power tests, the crew forgot to immobilize the wheels of the aircraft.

After applying full thrust power to the engines, the aircraft crashed into the concrete jet blast deflection wall. This damaged the airplane to the point that the nose broke away from the rest of the fuselage, causing irreparable damage to the aircraft.

In 2018, a Lufthansa Airbus A340-300 painted in special “Star Alliance” colors caught fire in Frankfurt, damaging seriously the nose and the first quarter of the fuselage. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways

Airways‘ Tribute to the Airbus A340

The Airbus A340 revolutionized the global aviation market. Thanks to its passenger capacity, record-breaking range, and exceptional operational safety, this aircraft will be remembered by manufacturers, airlines, and aviation enthusiasts as one of the most legendary airliners ever made.

The Airways photography team has gathered the following photos taken of the Airbus A340 aircraft family over the last few years.

Featured image: The front profile of the Airbus A340-600, with its unique main landing gear, has made many aviation enthusiasts fall in love with this aircraft. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Correspondent - Europe & Middle East
Commercial aviation enthusiast from Madrid, Spain. Studying for a degree in Air Traffic Management and Operations at the Technical University of Madrid. Aviation photographer since 2018.

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