MIAMI – The Airbus A340-600 has been consecutively retired from commercial service by several carriers within the last two years.

After 10 years of flights as the largest commercial aircraft, from 2001 until 2011, the A340-600 assembly line has been halted due to the low commercial demand of the type.

Known as the Airbus A340, the four-engine fleet of four models was introduced in 1993 by the manufacturer. Its variations started with the series -200, having the shortest capacity; -300, -500 and -600, having the largest one.

1990-2000: Airbus develops first prototypes

In 1993, Lufthansa (LH) flew the A340-200 for the first time, briefly followed by the first flight of the A340-300 operated by AirFrance (AF). Later, the service went commercial and expanded when SriLanka Airlines (UL) and Virgin (VS) ordered A340-300 models.

VS also marked a precedent in the history of the A340 family by launching the first customer flight of the series A340-600 in 2002.

A340’s characteristics plane by plane

  • A340-200 has a seating capacity for 261 passengers in a three-class cabin design, with 13,800km of range, and for 240 travelers in three-class cabins with 15,000km.

The A340-200 was launched as an improvement of the A340-300, but only 28 were developed due to low market demand. The short capacity the model had in comparison with the others from the same family affected the massive requests.

  • The A340-300 has a seating capacity for 295 passengers in a three-class cabin layout with 12,400km of range. A total of 218 aircraft have been delivered and modified over time, with a fleet of 96 aircraft in airline service by July 2018, being LH the major carrier with 34 aircraft.
  • The A340-500 can carry 313 passengers in three-class cabins. It was designed for ultra-long haul routes over 16,020 km. After its first flight with Emirates (EK) in 2003, as of 2020, there are only three A340-500 flying in commercial service, two with Azerbaijan Airlines (J2) and one with HiFly (5K).
  • The A340-600 has a capability to seat of 379 travelers in a three-class cabin layout with a range of 14,450km. Currently, there are 54 aircraft of the type in commercial service with Lufthansa (17), Iberia (16), South African Airways (3), Plus Ultra (2), and other private companies.

The A340-600 was developed to go against the Boeing 747 (B747) airliners. In comparison with the later, thee A340-600 has the same passenger capacity, but 25% more cargo volume at a lower cost than B747.

2010: A340-600’s discontinued performance

Having its last assembled aircraft in 2011, Airbus finally delivered 380 models of the A340. The future of the project did not see light after other airliners with two engines and less fuel consumption were developed.

In 2010, Boeing launched its Boeing 747-8 with two variants, the 747-8I for passengers and the 747-8F for cargo. The aircraft replaced the A340-600 and became the largest commercial aircraft built in the US and the largest worldwide passenger carrier, according to its characteristics.

Although the above airline companies with major A340 fleets kept their planes after Airbus’ shutdown, since the last half of 2019, several of them have announced, month by month, that they would retire the whole A340 family from their operations.

Airlines shutting-down A340 family operations

In August 2019, VS farewelled three of its six A340-600 aircraft, which had a life span of 13 years. They would be replaced with A350s, also developed by Airbus. In March 2020, the carrier postponed to a later date its goodbye of the other three airplanes, previously planned for July, due to the COVID-19.

During the last years, Iberia (IB) was progressively retiring its A340-300 fleet of 17 airplanes and is currently doing the same with its last 16 A340-600 models. The 17th A340-600 was in operations until January 2020.

Mahan Air (W5) has a current fleet of nine A340 without any announcement of cutting operations or replacing the aircraft averaging 19 years since Airbus and Boeing are not available to make transactions in Iran due to the US economic embargo.

LH has the major fleet in the world, also replacing the A340 family with A350s and Boeing 787s, having the last A340-200 retired in 2018.

However, a new acquisition took place when Plus Ultra (PU) added a new A340-600 to its fleet in November 2019 to offer more long-haul routes.

Also, the A340-600 marked another milestone in February 2020 when it was used by Lufthansa and Airbus to register atmospheric and climatic data for a research project by IAGOS-Caribic (In-Service Aircraft for a Global Observing System and Civil Aircraft for the Regular Investigation of the Atmosphere Based on an Instrument Container, respectively).

Even as some A340-600s are being grounded in cemeteries, other ones such as the A350, launched in 2013, have been replacing their latest high-tech predecessors, so worldwide carriers are still demanding Airbus aircraft.