The commonality feature of Airbus’ fly-by-wire jetliner families is marking 25 years of operations, providing benefits that range from enhanced fleet deployment, improved efficiency and better scheduling for airlines to greater productivity, proficiency and job satisfaction for pilots.
Airbus’ A320 was the first fly-by-wire airliner to enter commercial service, providing a cornerstone in the company’s forward-looking approach that brought cockpits and flight controls into the modern era. The commonality results from Airbus’ continuous application of similarities in cockpit layout and functionality – along with shared aircraft handling characteristics and similarity in systems – across its product line of fly-by-wire aircraft.
Today, Airbus commonality covers everything from the single-aisle A320 Family (composed of the A318, A319, A320 and A321) to the widebody A330, A340, A350 XWB and the double-deck A380.
Single Fleet Flying: a foundation of Airbus commonality
Within the twin-engine A320 Family, flight crew members can perform Single Fleet Flying – easily shifting among the various aircraft models, thereby flying multiple versions with the same type rating.
Advantages of Single Fleet Flying include the optimum use of pilot resources by airlines, reduced training requirements for flight crews as well as related lower costs for airlines, and increased flight opportunities for pilots.
These benefits extend to the latest A320neo (new engine option) variants as well. The world’s airworthiness authorities have concluded that even with the installation of NEO’s new powerplants, the aircraft can be considered variants of the A320ceo (current engine option) family members – allowing all versions to be operated by pilots with the same A320 type rating.
Single Fleet Flying also applies within other Airbus product line segments, such as the A330, covering its A330-200 and A330-300 passenger models, the A330-200F freighter…and in the future, the A330neo (new engine option) version.
And while the long-range A330 and next-generation A350 XWB have different type certificates, their handling characteristics are so similar that they have been granted a Common Type Rating from the airworthiness authorities. To transition from an A330 to the A350 XWB, pilots use laptop-based systems and ground-based trainers, eliminating the mandatory need for expensive full-flight simulators and a full type rating check ride. The pilots can then be assigned to both the A330 and A350 under terms of a single licence endorsement – another example of Single Fleet Flying that results directly from Airbus commonality.
Cross Crew Qualification, and the advantages of Mixed Fleet Flying
Commonality also streamlines the requirements in transitioning from one Airbus jetliner product type to another. For instance, an A320-rated pilot who is going to qualify on the very large, four-engine A380 is given shortened ground training courses and only five simulator sessions; whereas pilots without previous Airbus fly-by-wire experience would require more extensive training – both in ground school and with flight simulators.
This commonality-related aspect within the Airbus product line is called Cross Crew Qualification, and it enhances the opportunities for a pool of multi-qualified pilots to operate, for example, both single-aisle and widebody Airbus airliners in what is referred to as Mixed Fleet Flying.
Significant cost savings and more flexibility for airlines
Commonality enables airlines to create a truly integrated fleet management structure, offering flexibility in the scheduling rosters for their crews and improving the utilisation of their aircraft – such as seamlessly bringing in a longer-fuselage A321 on a route where passenger volume has grown beyond the capacity of an A320.
Gerrit Van Dijk, who works in Technical Marketing - Aircraft Operations for Airbus Customer Affairs, noted that it is not uncommon for a pilot to experience six to eight changes in the aircraft types flown during a career, involving typical retraining costs of $30,000 for each changeover. “Add some 1.5 months of pilot downtime for each change, and it becomes obvious that the combined costs to airlines is several billion dollars every year,” he said. “However, those with Airbus fleets can reduce pilot retraining costs by two-thirds on average.”
According to Van Dijk, the advantages of commonality not only apply to large main-line carriers with significant aircraft fleets; smaller airlines in particular can benefit from powerful economies of scale that previously were the privilege of big operators. Depending on the mix of fleet and the nature of an airline’s flight operations, annual revenue flying time per pilot may increase by 5-15 percent with Single Fleet Flying and Mixed Fleet Flying, he added.
A better work environment and more proficiency for pilots
Pilots appreciate Airbus commonality for the opportunities of a more varied work environment, including the ability to fly on a larger part of an airline’s route network, while enjoying better mobility within their airline and across the job market, Van Dijk explained.
He cited the example of pilots who alternate long-haul and short-range trips by applying Single Fleet Flying and Mixed Fleet Flying. These flight crew personnel have the possibility to perform more takeoffs and landings for proficiency, while enabling a better work and life balance compared with being assigned only long-haul flying.