Airbus A340: Right Plane, Wrong Time

Whilst taking a look at the history of the Airbus A300 recently, it got me thinking about one of Airbus’ other jets, the A340. Whilst the A340’s sister, the A330 has enjoyed great success the A340’s life wasn’t quite so successful. Although had the timing of the project been a little different, the jets success could have been very different.
It seems a little strange to be commenting on how the timing of the jet was wrong, as the concept of a four engined twin aisle long haul aircraft was first discussed in the early 1970’s, not too long after Airbus was founded. Back then, the aircraft was designated the A300B11 before later adopting the TA11 (TA standing for twin aisle) name to differentiate between the current A300 developments and the future development of the A320.
Initially, the aircraft was intended to be a 707 and DC8 replacement where as the A300B9 (later to become the TA9 and then the A330) was intended to replace the DC10 and L1011 on medium range transcontinental routes. The reasoning behind this was due to the fact that ETOPS wasn’t a thing back in those days – so any airliner that was to fly any great distance overwater needed at least three engines. So why not just concentrate on a single aircraft with four engines? Well, this was down to Airbus wanting to please the US market. They preferred to operate twin jets due to cost, where as the Asian market favoured a quad jet due to the fact that even with an engine out, it could still be operated safely – remember, we were still in the 1970’s here, so a long way from the ultra long haul twin jets of today. The European market however was somewhat on the fence.
Progress on these new additions was slow in the 1970’s due to the fact that Airbus was concentrating on developing the SA1, SA2 and SA3, which would later go on to become the highly successful A320 series. However, by 1982 the final design specifications were ready along with a further aircraft, the TA12, which never got further than the drawing board. By 1985 further enhancements had been made to the specifications, including ditching the previous A300 flight deck and instead installing the new fly by wire flight deck and side-stick from the A320.
The A340, along with its sister the A330 as they were now known, was officially launched in July 1987. Initial sales were strong for the aircraft, with ten airlines ordering eighty nine A340’s. The biggest coup for the type was when Singapore Airlines cancelled its order for the MD11 and went with the A340 instead. This was due to the fact the A340 was able to fly non stop between Singapore and Western Europe, where as the competing MD11 would have had to made a stop for fuel en-route.
For the aircraft to be put into production, much like Boeing a quarter of a century earlier with the 747, Airbus had to create a whole new facility adjacent to Blagnac Airport, in Toulouse France. Upgrades were also made to facilities in the UK, with BAE investing into their current facilities in Filton and their wing production centre in Chester.
The first flight of the type was made in October 1991 ahead of launch customer Lufthansa taking delivery of their first example in February 1993. Air France was the launch customer for the -300 variant who took delivery just a few weeks later. This also happened to be the 1000th Airbus built.
By this time, a -400 variant was also well into the design phase with an expected entry into service by the year 2000. The -400 would be a stretched version of the -200/300 with slightly uprated CFM engines. It was announced in 1995, however this didn’t prove at all popular with the airlines and that particular project was shelved. The engines for this type later found a home on the -300E.
By the end of the 1990’s, Airbus was developing the next generation A340, the -500 and the -600. Both would be stretches of the original variants. They would also feature uprated engines, provided by Rolls Royce. Virgin Atlantic was announced as the launch customer of the updated variant in August 1997. However, by this time competitor Boeing was a long way down the road with their twin engined 777-300ER. This was superior to the A340-600 in almost every way. It was more fuel efficient due to it only having two engines, it had a larger passenger capacity, could carry more cargo, had a higher cruising speed. About the only thing the A340 had in its pocket was it had a greater range, although only by a few hundred miles.
The initial flights of the new generation A340 took place in February 2001 for the -500 and April 2001 for the -600. The first delivery was in the summer of 2002 to Virgin Atlantic, although it wasn’t without issues. From memory, the airline said they would “never be a launch customer again” due to the poor reliability of the type. Nethertheless, the type went on to form the backbone of the airlines fleet reaching a peak of 19 in service. The airline had a further six on order but by 2010 these had been cancelled as they transitioned away from four engined aircraft. Middle Eastern airline Emirates had also cancelled its order for 20 A340-600’s four years previously, and by this time Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific had also disposed of their three aircraft after just seven years in service.
The story for the A340-500 wasn’t any better. It’s major selling point was that it was the worlds longest range aircraft, however it simply wasn’t efficient enough. Once more, the competition from Boeing, the 777-200LR was superior in almost every way. Just 34 -500’s were delivered, most notably to Singapore Airlines who used the variant on the worlds longest route between Singapore and New York until 2013 when it was decided that the route simply wasn’t profitable enough. Air Canada kept their two for just three years before going with the 777 instead. Thai Airways was another airline that had operated both the -500 and -600 variant before trading them in for more efficient models.
Despite announcing an improved variant of the -500 and -600 in 2006, the airlines had made their mind up and the project was officially cancelled in 2011. What was billed as a world beater in the 70’s and 80’s was simply not good enough in the 2010’s. Whilst the airlines seemed keen on the project initially, by the time Boeing’s 777 product really took off, it was clear that this was the direction for the airlines to go with. The project was cancelled with a total of 377 aircraft built – the -300 proving to be by far the most popular variant with 218 delivered. By comparison, the 777 project continues to this day with orders totalling over 2000 aircraft.
Its not all doom and gloom for Airbus though. Their A320 series has proven to be one of the most popular short haul aircraft in the world. The A340’s cousin, the A330 has proven to be a very popular product – the twin jet having accrued over 1700 orders to date and the new A350 product having gained over 800 in just a few years.

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