Airbus and South Korea have been strategic partners for more than 40 years, from the time when Korean Air became the first non-European carrier to order the original A300B4 jetliner. Since then, the country has become a key customer base for Airbus across the company’s commercial aircraft, defence, space and helicopter product lines.
Thriving industrial partnerships between Airbus and several South Korean aviation companies, as well as highly successful joint-development programmes, also have set the standard for cross-border collaboration efforts. These have brought multiple direct benefits for the South Korean economy, and support for development of the country’s growing aerospace industry.
The relationship between Airbus and the country began in 1974 with Korean Air’s order for the A300B4 widebody aircraft. Since then, airlines in Korea have ordered almost 200 passenger aircraft across the company’s product line (as of late 2018). This includes the A320 Family, the versatile A330 widebody, the all-new A350 XWB and the A380 superjumbo.
Korean Air had ordered 112 Airbus aircraft in total comprising 10 A220s, 30 from the A320 Family, 32 A300s, 30 A330s and 10 A380s. The South Korean airline’s first A220-300 entered commercial service in January 2018, making it the launch Asian operator of this single-aisle aircraft. At the end of 2018, the carrier operated eight A220-300s on domestic services within Korea, with plans to fly them on international services later in 2018.
The airline’s 29 popular A330s operate on its Asian network and selected long haul routes to Europe. The ordered the A380 in 2003 and took delivery of its first aircraft in 2011. Today, 10 superjumbos fly on the airline’s premier routes from Seoul to points in North America and Europe. Additionally, Korean Air ordered 30 A321neo aircraft in a 2015 transaction for use on its domestic services and regional routes.
Asiana Airlines, which became an Airbus customer in 1996, had ordered a total of 77 aircraft from the company through 2018, when it was operating a fleet of 26 A320 Family aircraft on domestic and regional services. For longer regional and selected long-haul operations, the carrier was using 15 A330s.
This carrier inked a major deal in July 2008 for 30 A350 XWB aircraft to form the backbone of its future mid-size widebody fleet. The airline took delivery of its initial A350-900 in April 2017, becoming the first South Korean carrier to operate this new aircraft. By following year, Asiana’s A350 WXB fleet consisted of six aircraft operating on long-haul routes.
In January 2011, Asiana Airlines ordered six A380s, which it has been operating on services from Korea to key destinations in North America and Europe. Four years later, the carrier placed a firm order for 25 A321neo aircraft for its ongoing fleet modernisation programme.
In 2018, another 25 A320 Family aircraft were in service with Air Busan, and six at Air Seoul; both are low-cost carrier subsidiaries of Asiana.
More than 60 Airbus helicopters were in service in the Korean military, civil and parapublic segments as of late 2018. Popular civilian models – such as the lightweight single-engine H125, lightweight twin-engine H135, and the H225 Super Puma – are especially in demand for missions that include search and rescue, utility and corporate transportation. The Republic of Korea Air Force operates H215M Super Puma helicopters in a utility role, while the country’s coast guard uses ship-based AS565 MBe Panthers for search and rescue missions.
In the military aircraft segment, South Korea ordered Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) in August 2015 to meet its air-to-air refuelling and airlift requirements. This landmark deal was the country’s first major non-U.S. military contract. The first aircraft was delivered to the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) in January 2019, and has been designated the KC-330A in Korean service. This new-generation platform extends the endurance and range of the ROKAF’s fighter aircraft, provides the service with strategic transport capability, and can be configured in a variety of layouts to carry passengers and freight or for medical evacuation purposes.
Airbus and Korea also have been long-time partners on space programmes. In 2005, the company worked with the Korean Aerospace and Research Institute (KARI) to design and produce the country’s first multi-function geostationary satellites: the GEO-Kompsat spacecraft series. Airbus also has been involved in the successful launch of South Korean satellites through Arianespace – a subsidiary of the ArianeGroup joint venture of Airbus and Safran – which orbited the country’s spacecraft for meteorological observation, environmental monitoring, space weather data-gathering and telecommunications.
South Korea is an important industrial base for Airbus. The company has established strong partnerships with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Korean Air Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD), both are Tier 1 suppliers for Airbus civil aircraft programmes; as well with as numerous small and medium enterprises in the country.
KAL-ASD manufactures the Airbus-designed fuel-saving Sharklet wingtip devices for the A320neo and A330neo jetliners. This company, which has been an Airbus supplier since 1989, also produces fuselage skin panels and floor assemblies for the A330, and all-composite cargo doors for the A350 XWB.
At its facilities in Sacheon, KAI produces fuselage shells and wing-top panel assemblies for A320 Family aircraft, wing bottom panels for the A380, wing machined ribs and stringers for the A330, as well as the A350 XWB’s aluminium-lithium machined wing ribs and nose landing gear bay and doors.
Airbus began working with Korea Aerospace Industries on the Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH) programme in 2006. Based on Airbus’ H225 helicopter, the 8.7-tonne Surion was delivered on cost, on time and on specification to the Korean army in December 2012. More than 70 helicopters had been manufactured during the six following years, including a variant for the national police agency, with the rotorcraft also defined in naval, amphibious and export variants.
Building on this success, Airbus and KAI began working on the in-development Light Civil Helicopter/Light Armed Helicopter (LCH/LAH) programme in 2015. Deliveries of this 5-tonne helicopter, which will be based on the H155, are scheduled to begin in 2022.
In October 2016, AeroSpace Technology of Korea (ASTK) won a contract to produce A320neo fan cowl door machined parts – its first direct agreement with Airbus. Other Korean small and medium enterprises mostly work as sub-contractors to Airbus suppliers. Soosung Airframe Company produces the A321 fuselage shell, while SAMCO manufactures the leading-edge skin for the Sharklet and the A350 bulk cargo door. Additional Tier 2 suppliers include Forex, Hizeaero and Yulkok Engineering Company.
The value of work undertaken in South Korea is set to grow by 20% from $500 million in 2016 to over $600 million by 2021. Airbus activities in the country support more than 6,000 highly-skilled Korean jobs.