MIAMI — The current generation of the Airbus widebody family, the A340 and the A330, entered service on February 2, 1993, and January 17, 1994, respectively.  The A340’s maiden flight took place on October 25, 1991, while the A330’s happened on November 2, 1992.

Eventually,economic and environmental realities, increased ETOPS ratings for much more efficient Boeing and Airbus twin-jets and strong competition from the Boeing 777 family led to the end of the A340 program in 2011, with the last deliveries occurring in November 2012.

Still, during the 21 years from the maiden flight to the last delivery, Airbus developed four variants of the A340 –- the -200, -300, -500 and -600.  They seated 240 to 359 passengers in typical two-class configurations, with ranges from 6,700 to 9,000nm.

The A340 also marked some historic aviation distinctions.  As of the end of 2014, 377 A340s were ordered and delivered, and 339 are still in service.  Private operators and governments also used the A340 for VIP transport.


Concepts for the A330/A340 family date back to the mid-1970s, when Airbus was looking to improve its first widebody, the A300, and compete against other aircraft of the time, including the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011.  The upgrade program broke into two branches: the A340 and A330.

The aircraft had identical fuselages and wings; the main difference was the number of engines. In addition, by the mid-1980s, the fly-by-wire system and flightdeck of the narrowbody A320 family were incorporated into the A330/A340 studies.  This would give Airbus an advantage over Boeing in terms of cockpit commonality, which meant shorter transition times for cross-training crews, for both its narrow and widebody jets.  The official A340 designation came on January 27, 1986.

(Credits: Airbus S.A.S)
(Credits: Airbus S.A.S)

Airbus engaged potential customers, including Lufthansa and Swissair, to finalize the technical details and present sales proposals. The new program also meant expanding production facilities.  British Aerospace expanded its wing construction plant by 150,000 square feet and Aérospatiale constructed a new assembly plant adjacent to Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.

The British, French, and German governments partially funded the program with subsidies that are a historic point of contention between Airbus and Boeing to this day.  Companies in other European countries, Asia, and the U.S. received subcontracts under the A330/A340 program.

Six A340s took part in 2,000 hours of testing after the maiden flight.  There were some lessons learned, specifically with the wings not being strong enough to carry the outboard engines at cruising speed. This resulted in modifications to avoid warping and fluttering.  The A340 obtained European certification on December 22, 1992, and FAA certification followed on May 27, 1993.

Entry Into Service

Lufthansa became the first operator of the A340 when it received a -200 on February 2, 1993. The German carrier began A340 passenger service six weeks later on March 15, 1993.  The -300 made its debut with Air France on February 26, 1993.

Moreover, a specially fitted A340 took part in a demonstration tour on June 16, 1993.  Equipped with an additional five center fuel tanks and flying 22 people, the airplane broke the nonstop flight record by an airliner when it flew 10,409nm.  This record lasted until 2005, when the demonstration model of the Boeing 777-200LR flew 11,664nm.


The A340-200 and -300 use four Franco-American developed CFM56-5C engines.  They both have a wingspan of 197 feet, 10 inches, and seat economy passengers in a 2-4-2 configuration.  The -200 has the shortest fuselage, measuring 194 feet, 10 inches. It can fly 261 passengers in a three-class layout 7,500nm or 240 passengers in the same layout up to 8,100nm.  However, its low capacity, compared to the longer -300, proved to be unpopular and resulted in only 28 -200s being built.

The A340-300 is 208 feet, 8 inches long and can fly 295 passengers 6,700nm in a three-class configuration.  A later -300E (enhanced) version, powered by CFM56-5C4 engines, could fly 300 passengers up to 7,400nm with the same layout.  Lufthansa became the largest operator of the -300E, with 30 aircraft.

Airbus A340-300 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)
Airbus A340-300 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)

As the number of -200s and –300s grew, airlines were starting to look for Boeing 747-100/-200 replacements.  Airbus considered a -400X stretch, but with the CFM56-5C engines, this would meant a significant range penalty.  So Airbus decided to produce a larger wing and new engines for its planned A340-500 and -600 series.  General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, and Rolls-Royce competed for the new engine type, but the Rolls-Royce Trent engine series won.

The A340-500 first flew on February 11, 2002, and received certification 10 months later. Emirates was the launch customer and began its first service to the Americas by using the new aircraft on its Dubai-New York route.  The -500 is 14 feet longer than the -300, but it has 50 percent more fuel capacity and can fly 313 passengers in three-classes 8,650nm.  In addition, the center bogie on the main landing gear went from two to four wheels because of the additional weight.

Singapore Airlines A340-500 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)
Singapore Airlines A340-500 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)

The -500 was the longest-range passenger airliner for three years until the Boeing 777-200LR entered service in 2006.  Furthermore, Singapore Airlines used the -500 in a 100-seat business class layout on the longest nonstop route, from Singapore to Newark, until 2013.  It took 18 hours and 30 minutes to go from Singapore to Newark and 18 hours and 45 minutes for the return.  Airbus also introduced an increased gross weight version, the -500IGW, that could fly up to 9,200nm.

The largest member of the A340 family is the -600.  It retains the 208-foot wingspan of the -500, but its fuselage measures 247 feet, one inch, 14 feet, four inches longer than the -500.  Despite the -600 designation, this aircraft actually flew before the -500, making its maiden flight on April 23, 2001.

Airbus A340-600 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)
Airbus A340-600 (Credits: Airbus S.A.S)

The -600 can carry 379 passengers in a three-class layout 7,500nm.  The A340-600 had the distinction of being the longest aircraft in the world until Boeing introduced the 747-8I.  Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic was the launch customer and painted the cheeky “mine is longer than yours” slogan on his airline’s fleet of -600s when they began service in July 2002.

A high-gross-weight variant, the -600HGW, flew on November 18, 2005, and had a range of 7,900nm.  Emirates became the launch customer of this heavier, longer-range variant, but cancelled its order.  Qatar Airways took four of these aircraft, but did not exercise additional options, opting instead for the Boeing 777-300ER.

The End of the Line

The A340 family began to experience a decline in sales in the 2000s, as the Boeing 777 family, especially the -300ER, began to dominate the long-range sector for 300 to 400 passengers.  With an ETOPS certification of 300 minutes, the 777 could fly virtually anywhere in the world, making four-engine operations more costly and less efficient.  This was also a period of rising oil prices, which made twin-engine aircraft, including the A330, even more attractive to customers.

Orders for the -500 and –600 came to a halt and Airbus decided to close the production of its A340s in November 2011, and the last examples were delivered a year later.  With its new Airbus A350, the company will be able to provide a twin-engine replacement for the A340 and has even offered customers to buy back A340s if they stick with Airbus for this new generation of A350-800s and -900s.  Despite the end of the program, we will continue to see A340s in the skies for a few more years.