As Airbus approached its 40-year anniversary in 2009, the company was doing what it does best: expanding the jetliner family, broadening its worldwide customer base, and seeking innovative ways to remain a market leader.
And – as it has done during many periods of its four-decade existence – Airbus was achieving these goals after flying through turbulence, both inside and outside the company.
The period from 2006 to 2009 included the A380’s certification by European and U.S. airworthiness authorities, clearing the way for this 21st century flagship’s commercial service introduction in October 2007. Also during this timeframe, Airbus launched its all-new A350 XWB, gave the programme go-ahead for a freighter version of its popular A330-200, and became a key player in the marketplace for military airlifters.
Corporate and VIP jetliner expansion
The three-year period also saw Airbus’ corporate and VIP jetliner family expand with the A318 Elite’s introduction as its smallest member, and the first booking of an A380 as the world’s largest VVIP aircraft. A major step in Airbus’ internationalisation was the rapid-paced development of its initial final assembly line outside of Europe, which is located in Tianjin, China and produces A320 Family aircraft – the first of which made its initial flight in May 2009.
During the same time, Airbus was faced with challenges on multiple fronts: its A380 production was lagging, the A350 underwent a makeover, and the internal and external effects of a weak dollar were magnified by growing pressures on the worldwide economy – which ultimately developed into the global economic “meltdown” beginning in late 2008.
The A380 takes centre stage
An historic Airbus achievement occurred on October 15, 2007 with the first delivery of an A380 – which was received by Singapore Airlines. During a colourful ceremony at Airbus’ Toulouse, France delivery centre, Singapore Airlines unveiled its new interior for the double-deck aircraft, using a cabin layout featuring 471 seats in three classes – including individual suites for premium passengers. Singapore Airlines inaugurated A380 revenue service on 25 October, 2007, operating the Rolls-Royce Trent 900-powered aircraft on its Singapore-Sydney route.
The carrier also received Airbus’ next three A380s, followed by the initial aircraft for Emirates, which was presented at the Hamburg, Germany delivery centre on 28 July, 2008. This was the first A380 delivered with Engine Alliance GP7200 powerplants, and Emirates used a 489-passenger configuration for its aircraft – composed of 14 first class suites, 76 business class seats and 399 in economy – along with innovative ceiling mood lighting throughout the cabin.
Qantas became the third airline to receive the A380, with its no.1 aircraft provided on 19 September 2008. Equipped with Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines, Qantas configured its aircraft in an extra spacious 450-seat arrangement, accommodating 14 passengers in first, 72 in business, 32 in premium economy and 332 in economy.
With the worldwide A380 fleet crossing the globe on routes to Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America, the jetliner quickly became a passenger favourite, and was confirmed as the quietest aircraft in the skies – both in terms of external noise levels and the internal passenger cabin environment.
A revamped A350 XWB
Building the world’s largest airliner was not without difficulties, however. Bottlenecks encountered in the definition, manufacturing and installation of the A380’s electrical systems and their more than 500 km. of internal wiring – combined with the customisation of aircraft to customer specifications – led to the build-up of delivery delays. In June 2006, Airbus outlined a series of actions dealing with the situation, including new processes for the outfitting of A380 fuselage sections and a revised pacing of their transfer to the final assembly line. The recovery process would take some time to put the A380 output back on track, but its initial results were confirmed with Airbus’ delivery of 12 aircraft to customers during 2008, meeting a personal commitment made by company President and CEO Tom Enders.
Another challenge faced by Airbus was bringing the new A350 to market. Originally launched in December 2004, the A350 was designed to complement Airbus’ existing A330-200 and A330-300 jetliners, offering extended range while retaining the same 222-inch (5.64-metre) fuselage cross-section used in the A330/A340 and the original A300/A310 aircraft. However, A350 customers were pushing for a more radical evolution with this new-generation aircraft, and after much discussion and debate, Airbus undertook a redesign that included an expansion of the A350’s fuselage cross-section to 232 inches (5.9 metres). On December 1, 2006, Airbus announced the industrial launch of the revamped A350 XWB (extra wide-body) as its new medium-capacity long-range aircraft family.
Growth of the A350 XWB
Finnair was the first airline to sign a firm A350 XWB contract, becoming the initial customer in March 2007 to convert its original purchase of A350s into an order for A350 XWBs. This was followed by A350 XWB orders and commitments from airlines and leasing companies in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia-Pacific, as well as North and South America – confirming that Airbus had once again surmounted another test of its will in the high-stakes game of commercial aviation.
Challenges faced by Airbus during the 2006-2009 period were not only related to its new aircraft programmes. The company was feeling the direct impact of a weak U.S. dollar, while many of its customers were reviewing their aircraft order and delivery commitments as they reacted to global financial pressures that cut into their passenger volume and impacted the bottom line.
These were among the factors that contributed to the development of a strategy for a “new Airbus,” which started with the Power8 restructuring plan. Introduced in February 2007, Power8 was designed to help Airbus face the very substantial challenge of the U.S. dollar’s weakness, as well as increased competitive pressures, the financial burden related to A380 delays, and the need to meet its future investment needs. This programme – and the steps that followed – provided for responsive cost-cutting measures, helped transform the Airbus business model, and realigned its network of facilities and partners.
First final assembly line outside of Europe
Despite the global financial pressures and internal trials, Airbus continued the sustained production of its successful A320 single-aisle Family and the A330/A340 wide-bodies, responding to the growing order book and an expanding list of customers. Programme milestones included Airbus’ January 2007 delivery of the 3,000th single-aisle aircraft, with AirAsia receiving an A320 as this milestone jetliner. During the same month, Airbus reached the 5,000th order mark for its A320 Family. Also in 2007, the 800th A330/A340 Family aircraft was provided to a customer (an A330-200 received by Qatar Airways in March), and the 5,000th overall Airbus delivery milestone occurred on December 14 with the handover of an A330-200 to Qantas.
Building on the unparalleled success of its A320 Family, Airbus expanded its industrial network by creating a new final assembly line in China – the company’s first outside of Europe. The decision to locate this facility in Tianjin was announced in June 2006, and a framework agreement for its development was signed in October 2006 with a Chinese consortium comprising the Tianjin Free Trade Zone, China Aviation Industry Corporation I (AVIC I), and China Aviation Industry Corporation II. A formal kickoff of the Tianjin final assembly line’s construction occurred in May 2007, and the initial aircraft built at this facility – an A320 for Dragon Aviation Leasing – made its maiden flight on 18 May, 2009.
Throughout the company’s history, Airbus has always taken the long view of its role in the global aviation marketplace. Looking to the future, this is reflected by Airbus’ major commitment to limiting aviation’s impact on the environment, and includes its role in the European Clean Sky initiative (one of the largest ever European-funded research and technology programmes), as well as support for eco-efficient technologies such as synthetic jet fuel and the eventual use of fuel cells as emission-free onboard energy sources. Airbus’ eco-efficient efforts are focussed on the full life cycle of its products, and range from the ISO 14001 environmental certification of its production sites and facilities (an aerospace industry first) to the development of recycling procedures for aircraft once they reach the end of their useful lives.