Airbus is the generic name for a family of European civil airliners produced by a company of the same name, originally a pan-European consortium of aircraft manufacturers and now a subsidiary of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), a Franco-German-Spanish aircraft group.

Building on the experience of the supersonic Concorde project, the Airbus concept emerged in 1965 as an Anglo-French initiative to jointly develop a wide-bodied, subsonic airliner in Europe. West Germany, which had no major indigenous aviation industry, quickly expressed interest in joining the project. A memorandum of understanding between the three governments was signed in 1967. Two years later, the British gov­ernment withdrew from the consortium for financial reasons – the French having threatened to do so shortly before – although Hawker Siddeley, later British Aerospace (BAe), remained a partner in its own right. Airbus Industrie, established in 1970, was restructured in 2001 (as Airbus) and is now a simplified joint stock company registered under French law. EADS (composed of Aérospatiale-Matra of France, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace of Germany, and CASA of Spain) initially owned 80 per cent of the Airbus stock, with BAE Systems (as BAe had become) holding the remaining fifth, but the latter decided to sell its share to EADS in 2006. Today, Airbus employs some 52,000 people, with 12 factories in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain. Airbus’s principal assembly plants are in Toulouse, France (where the company is headquartered), and Hamburg, Germany.

Unlike the three wide-bodied airliners developed in the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s – the Boeing 747, McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed TriStar – the Airbus was originally designed for use on short- to medium-haul routes. When the first Airbus, the A300 – the world’s first twin-aisle, twin-engine airliner – flew in 1972, it was capable of carrying 239 passengers on routes of up to 2,200 kilometres. Whilst the three US aircraft secured immediate orders for use on long-distance routes, operators proved reluctant to purchase wide-bodied aircraft for shorter ones. Sales for the A300 only built up slowly during the 1970s, as the efficiency gains from Airbus operation gradually became clear, with the turning-point coming ironically with a major purchase from a US carrier, Eastern Airlines, in 1979. A shorter variant of the aircraft, the A310, carrying fewer passengers over somewhat longer sectors, was rolled out in 1982.

As Airbus’ market share began to grow, the company moved on to the offensive, using launch funding from national governments to take on US competition across the board. Its innovative narrow-bodied, short-haul, ‘fly-by-wire’ A320 and A321 airliners, which first flew in 1987 and 1993, were a great success, outselling the Boeing 737 and McDonnell-Douglas DC-9 at comparable points in their history. The ‘A320 family’, as it became known, was widened to include A319 and A318 variants in 1995 and 2002. In parallel, the existing A300 and A310 series was extended with the A330 and A340 aircraft in 1991 and 1992, designed for long-range and very long-range markets respectively. The A330 and A340 share the same diameter of fuselage as the A300 and A310, but are substantially longer than the earlier aircraft, with two and four engines respectively. In 2000, Airbus began developing its most ambitious project yet, the double-deck A380 super jumbo. Capable of carrying 555 passengers over distances of up 14,800 kilometres, the A380 first flew in 2005 and entered service two years later.

By the end of 2011, Airbus had delivered a total of 7,000 airliners (4,900 of them from the A320 family, some of which are now assembled in Tianjin, China). The company currently commands about half the global market for aircraft seating more than 100 passengers and its products are flown by over 200 airlines worldwide. The emergence of Airbus as a major competitor to the US industry was partly responsible for forcing both McDonnell-Douglas and Lockheed out of large-scale civilian aircraft production. Boeing and Airbus are now the only two major civilian aircraft manufacturers in the world, going head-to-head for nearly all significant airliner purchases. Airbus has delivered more civil aircraft than Boeing for each year since 2003.

The growing success of the Airbus project has become a serious irritant in Transatlantic relations. With the support of the US Congress and Administration, Boeing has accused EU member states of subsi­dising Airbus in a fashion inconsistent with World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The latter allow a third of the cost of launching a civilian aircraft to be financed by government loans, provided that these are repaid within 17 years with interest (calculated at a rate of 0.25 per cent above that paid by the government in its borrowing) and appropriate royalties. The EU member states refuse to accept that launch aid has been unfair – asserting that past loans have been fully repaid on this basis – and counter that civilian production by Boeing benefits directly from the technical spin-offs and financial cross-subsidies that accompany the company’s status as the second largest private-sector recipient of US government spending on defence research and procurement. In 2005, Boeing and Airbus launched WTO cases against each other. Preliminary rulings in March and September 2010 appeared to suggest that the accusations on each side were justified.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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