MIAMI — This week, Airbus commemorates the 30th anniversary of the first flight of its A320 narrowbody jetliner. The introduction of this aircraft created one of the most heated competitions in the single-aisle commercial aviation market, with rival manufacturer Boeing’s 737 family, which entered service 20 years before the A320.
The contest will continue for some time to come as both manufactures introduce the latest generations of these highly successful aircraft families. So, let’s take a look at the history of the A320 family.
After the introduction into service of its first commercial jet, the widebody A300 in the mid-1970s, Airbus began to study development of narrowbody aircraft that could compete with the existing Boeing 737 and McDonnell Douglas DC-9.
Other European manufacturers, including British Aircraft Corporation, CASA, Fokker, and Saab were also looking into developing a similar airplane. In June 1977, British Aerospace and other European manufacturers initiated design on the “Joint European Transport” (JET).
The study envisioned the JET being powered by CFM56 engines with a cruise speed of Mach 0.84 and a seating capacity of 130 to 188 seats. Airbus assumed control of the program in 1980 and named it the “Single-Aisle” (SA). Developers studied three variants, the SA1, SA2, and SA3 that would cover the 125-180 seat range.
In February, 1981 Airbus gave the program the familiar A320 designation of today. Boeing was already planning the 737-300/-400/-500 upgrade, while McDonnell Douglas was rolling out the new MD-80 family.
Airbus planned on a superior product and even consulted in the design process with established Boeing and McDonnell Douglas customer Delta Airlines, which was looking for a 150-seat airplane.
Airbus went with a wider cross section for the A320, compared to the 25-year-old fuselage that was common to the Boeing 707/720, 727, and 737 families. The A320 would have a fuselage diameter of 12 ft 2 in (12.7 m), compared to the 11 ft 4 in (3.45 m) offered by Boeing.
Moreover, the aircraft would offer a maximum range of 2,850 nmi (3,280 mi or 5,280 km), which would enable U.S. carriers to fly transcontinental cost-to-coast routes. Finally, its higher aspect ratio wing would offer better aerodynamic efficiency than the 737 and MD-80.
Airbus also took a revolutionary step by incorporating the first fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system on a commercial airliner, where the pilot would place inputs into the flight control computer, which would in turn interpret them and move the control surfaces.
FBW was common on military fighter aircraft and would result in weight savings for the A320 over the existing hydraulic and cable systems used by its competitors. The FBW also provided flight envelope protection to prevent exceeding structural and aerodynamic limits.
Furthermore, the airplane would be fitted with a glass cockpit, featuring side-stick controls, instead of traditional yokes, and Airbus would go on to make this cockpit common in all its future aircraft to facilitate flight crew transitions among the different Airbus families.
Airbus decided to go with two engine manufacturers to power the A320 family. The first offering was the CFM56-5-A1 by CFM international, a joint version between General Electric (United States) and Snecma (France). International Aero Engines (a joint venture between Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney, Japanese Engine Corporation, Fiat, and MTU Aero Engines) later offered the V2500-A1.
Launch, Production, and Testing
Disagreements between France, the UK, and West Germany resulted in a costly three year delay of the official launch. Disputes ranged from percentage of work-share by each country to government subsidies to aid the program. The countries involved settled their differences on March 1, 1984. Airbus officially launched the A320 family the next day.
Air France became the launch customer when it ordered 50 A320s, although British Caledonian had placed seven orders before official launch in October 1983. These A320s would be powered by the CFM-56. Cyprus Airways would be the first customer to order A320s powered by the IAE V2500. In addition, Northwest Airlines placed the largest order at the time – 100 A320s in October 1986.
The prototype A320 rolled out on February 14, 1987 and conducted its first flight a week later on February 22. After 1,200 accumulated hours during 530 test flights, the European Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) certified the aircraft one year after rollout on February 26, 1988. Airbus delivered the first A320 to Air France on March 26, 1988.
Entry into Service
Air France commenced passenger service with the A320 on April 18, 1988. Two early accidents, an Air France A320 crashing after an airshow flyover on June 26 1988 and an Indian Airlines landing short of a runway on February 14, 1990, resulted in media scrutiny of the FBW technology. However, accident investigators determined pilot error as a result of workload in both instances and made the appropriate recommendations to ease crew workload.
The A320 is the base model for the entire family. All variants have a cruising speed of Mach 0.78 at 36,000 ft (11,000 m) and a maximum service ceiling of 39,000 ft (12,000 m). The A318 is the shortest variant and differentiates itself from its siblings by using Pratt & Whitney PW6000 engines, while the others use the IAE V2500 series of engines. The whole family uses the CFM-56-5 series as the other engine option. The longest member of the family is the A321.
The Airbus A320
The A320 consists of two series, the -100 and the -200. Airbus only produced 21 of the -100 series. The -200 is the same size, but has many improvements, such as wingtip fences and a center fuel tank that allowed for more range. The A320 is the most prolific member of the family. It seats 150 passengers in a typical two-class layout and flies up to 3,100 nmi (3,540 mi or 5,700 km).
The A320 has a length of 123 ft, 3 in (37.57 m). Its engines produce a maximum of 27,000 lbf (120 kN). Of note, early customer Indian Airlines opted for a double-bogie main landing gear since it operated in airfield with runway conditions not suitable for the standard single-bogie.
The Airbus A321
Airbus launched the A321 in 1988, as the A320 entered service. This variant is 22 ft 9 in (6.94 m) longer than the A320. Airbus installed double-slotted flaps to maintain the performance of the A320. Two A321-100 prototypes, one with CFM and the other with IAE engines, first flew on March 11, 1993.
Lufthansa and Alitalia became the launch customers, Lufthansa opting for IAE V2500-A5 and Alitalia going with the CFM 56-5B engines. Lufthansa received its first A321 on January 27, 1994 and Alitalia on March 22, 1994. The longer fuselage and additional weight resulted in a reduction in range.
To keep customer interest, Airbus launched a longer range A321-200 in 1995. The first A321-200 flew in December 1996. The -200 had a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) of 205,000 lb (93,000 kg), compared to the 183,000 lb (83,000 kg) of the -100. Furthermore, two optional fuel tanks allowed for a maximum range of 3,000 nmi (3,480 mi or 5,600 km) carrying 185 passengers in a typical two-class setting. The engines provide up to 33,000 lbf (147 kN) of thrust.
The Airbus A319
The next step for Airbus was to shrink the A320 into the aircraft known as the A319, a fuselage reduction of 12 ft, 3 in (3.73 m). CFM and IAE derated the engines to provide a maximum thrust of 24,000 lbf (105 kN). Airbus began to offer the A319 in May 1992, but the official launch did not take place until June 10, 1993.
The International Lease Finance Corporation (ILFC) was the first customer of the A319 with an order for six airplanes. The first aircraft rolled out on August 24, 1995 with the maiden flight occurring a day later. Swissair received the first A319 on April 25, 1996. In a standard two-class setting, the A319 can seat 124 passengers with a maximum range of 3,600 nmi (4,160 mi or 6,700 km), making it the longest-range member of the family.
Airbus also introduced the A319CJ, a long-range business jet version that is used by private customers and governments. This variant features removable fuel tanks in the cargo compartment that allow it to fly up to 6,000 nmi (6,995 mi or 11,100 km). The manufacturer also offered the option to resell the CJ to the commercial market by removing the additional tanks and refitting the cabin.
The Airbus A318
The “Baby Airbus” is the A318, and it is a further shrink of the family. In a typical two-class arrangement, it seats 107 passengers with a maximum range of 3,100 nmi (3,540 mi or 5,700 km). Airbus launched the aircraft on April 26, 1999 and the maiden flight took place on January 15, 2002. In addition, Frontier Airlines became the launch customer, and the carrier introduced the A318 into service in July 2003.
The A318 is 7 ft 10 in (2.4 m) shorter than the A319 and its engines produce up to 24,000 lbf (106 kN) of thrust. Airbus also implemented modifications in the aerodynamics and FBW software to allow the aircraft to conduct the steep approach into London City Airport from which British Airways provided long-range, all-business class service to New York. Airbus only sold 79 A318s, mainly because airlines prefer to generate more passenger and cargo revenue by flying the larger A319 for a similar cost.
A decade after Boeing began to offer winglets to improve the efficiency of the 737 family, Airbus incorporated them into the A320 series. This very visible feature of the enhanced A319, A320, and A321 has the nickname “Sharklet”, a 7 ft 10 in (2.4 m) tall winglet that improves performance, especially range, which can be traded for payload and vice-versa.
The first Sharklet-equipped Airbuses began to enter service in 2012. With Sharklets, the aircraft can carry 1,100 lb (500 kg) of additional payload) or increase range by 110 nmi (126 mi or 204 km), and they offer a 4% reduction in fuel burn. Another improvement is a new cabin style that offers more overhead luggage space, better noise insulation, lighter materials, and optional LED mood lighting.
Airbus formally launched the second generation of the A320 family, the “new engine option” (neo) in in December 2010. The design retains the same wings and fuselage, including the sharklets. The key new feature is, as the name implies, the new engine option consisting of wither CFM International LEAP 1A turbofans or the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G. With the engine upgrade the manufacturer promises a 16% fuel burn improvement.
The neo rolled out of the factory on July 1, 2014 and had its maiden flight on September 25, 2014 and received joint certification from the FAA and EASA on November 24, 2015. Airbus planned the first delivery to Qatar Airways in the fourth quarter of 2015.
As with many new programs, the neo has had some teething pains. Airbus swapped the first delivery from Qatar Airways to Lufthansa because of operational constraints with the PW1100G powerplant, an issue that has been reported since back 2015. So far, Qatar Airways has refused to take delivery of any of these aircraft. Instead, it has placed and order for the Boeing 737 MAX, and it is rumored that the standby order for up to 80 A320neos might be swapped for A321neos.
Lufthansa eventually received the first neo on January 20, 2016, and finally it entered into scheduled service on January 25, on the Hamburg – Frankfurt route.
Since then, Airbus has delivered about 70 A320neos have been delivered to 19 customers worldwide.
The Airbus A320 Today
All A320 family aircraft have an ETOPS-180 rating, which allows them to be 180 minutes from a suitable airfield in case of contingency. Moreover, all pilots are qualified to fly the four members of the family without additional training.
With the introduction of the ‘neo’, Airbus now calls the original generation of A320s the “current engine option” (ceo).
Today, Airbus currently produces 42 A320s per month, and expects to produce 50 per month by 2017. A320s roll out of plants in Hamburg, Germany and Toulouse, France. In addition, Airbus has a plant in Tianjin, China for A320s destined for Chinese airlines. Furthermore, a new plant opened in Mobile, Alabama in September 2015.
The company plans to produce 60 aircraft per month before 2020, or the equivalent to a new A320 aircraft rolling out of the final assembly lines every 12 hours.
The A320 has been a resounding success, with over 7,300 deliveries and a backlog of over 3,950 aircraft (including the A320neo), it is by far the most numerous member of the family, outselling the A319 and A321 by a factor of over three to one each. And we have no doubt that the ‘neo’ will ensure the continuation of these tremendous achievements for the years to come.