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25th anniversary of the first Airbus A320 delivery

by Devesh Agarwal

25 years ago today, Airbus entered the hither-to US dominated market of narrow body airliners when it delivered its first A320 to Air France. The A320 shook up the market segment with the highest demand. As of today Boeing and Airbus estimate the single aisle narrow body segment to purchase about 20,000 airframes in the next 20 years.

The A320 which seats 180 passengers in a single class high density configuration, was the first member of the A320 family. Launched in March 1984, it first flew on 22 February 1987, and without a doubt, has significantly altered the face of “Code C” market segment, which sees the highest demand of aircraft. As of today Boeing and Airbus estimate the single aisle narrow body segment to purchase about 20,000 airframes in the next 20 years.

The A320 family. A318, A319, A320, A321. The number of over-wing doors is the secret to identifying the variants.

The A320 family was soon expanded to include the extended length A321 seating 220 passengers in a single class high density configuration, first delivered in 1994, the shorter A319 seating 156, first delivered in 1996, and the really short A318, seating 132, first delivered in 2003.

All economy class Kingfisher Airbus A321 VT-KFW.
All economy class Kingfisher Airbus A321 VT-KFW.

The A320 family pioneered the use of digital fly-by-wire flight control systems, as well as side-stick controls, in commercial aircraft, and extensive use of automation and flight envelope protection, causing Boeing supporters to deride the aircraft as flying a video arcade.

Final assembly of the A320 family takes place in Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany, and in Tianjin, China. Airbus has announced the construction of a final assembly line (FAL) in Mobile, Alabama, USA, the home turf of arch-rival Boeing.

Winglets and Sharklets

The first series of A320s, the A320-100 did not feature any winglets. Only 21 aircraft were produced for Air Inter and British Caledonian Airways, both bought by Air France and British Airways respectively.

An Airbus A320-100 (F-GGEA) of Air Inter without winglets. Image courtesy Wikimedia

The all familiar wing-tip fence was added from the -200 series onwards. Indian Airlines an early adopter of the A320 had Airbus develop special four-wheel main gear bogies for use on rough under-prepared airstrips which the large dual wheel bogies could not handle. Unfortunately these non-standard four wheel bogies have become a curse for the airline, which now cannot find a buyer for these aircraft.

Airbus A320-200 VT-EPC of Indian Airlines (now Air India) featuring winglets and four wheel main gear bogie.
Airbus A320-200 VT-EPC of Indian Airlines (now Air India) featuring winglets and four wheel main gear bogie.

Now the A320 optionally ships with new blended winglets called “Sharklets“. Both of India’s low cost carriers GoAir and IndiGo operate Sharklet equipped A320s.

Airbus A320-200 of GoAir VT-GOL featuring the new "Sharklets".
Airbus A320-200 of GoAir VT-GOL featuring the new “Sharklets”. Image courtesy Airbus.

Competition

The Airbus A319, A320, A321 today compete with the Boeing 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900ER respectively. The venerable Boeing 737, even today, is the best selling aircraft in the world, Boeing having just delivered its 7,500th 737 aircraft recently; but this lead is slender and the A320 is closing the gap. The McDonnell Douglas MD80, MD83, MD88, and MD90 which morphed in to the Boeing 717 are no more in contention. Newcomers like the Bombardier C series and COMAC C919 are expected to offer competition, especially in the smaller sizes.

Delivery history Airbus A320 vs. Boeing 737

As of December 2012, Airbus has delivered 5,402 A320 series aircraft since their first delivery on March 26, 1988, with another 3,629 on firm order. In comparison, Boeing has shipped 5,919 737s in the same period and has a further 3,074 on firm order.

Annual deliveries of Airbus A320 (in green) vs Boeing 737 (in red). Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The future

On 1 December 2010, Airbus officially launched the next generation of the A320 family with the A320neo or “New Engine Option”. The neo offers a choice of larger diameter engines which offer significant fuel savings, which can top 15%, when combined with airframe improvements and the standard fit of Sharklets. Airbus enjoys an advantage in larger diameter fan engines, since its A320s are taller and there is more space under the wing, unlike Boeing which needs to so 

Cut and make your own A320neo paper model airplane

Operators are offered an engine choice of the CFM International LEAP-X or the Pratt and Whitney Pure Power PW1000G Geared Turbo-Fan (GTF). With well over 1,400 aircraft on order from 22 airlines, the A320neo family is the fastest ever selling commercial aircraft.

Boeing subsequently responded with its re-engined option of the 737 called 737 MAX which has scored impressive wins but lags behind the neo on backlogs of the newest generation orders 40%-60%.

Read our analysis of the A320neo vs. the 737 MAX

The re-engined aircraft will carry the two behemoth airframers for the next ten years. The narrow body single aisle aircraft segment is the hottest in the industry and both Airbus and Boeing are going to face competition from the Bombardier C Series, Sukhoi SuperJet, COMAC C919, Embraer E195, and UAC/Irkut MS21. Expect a new aircraft from both manufacturers about 12 years to 15 years from now. A paper by the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) documents well, the challenges the duopoly of Airbus and Boeing face in the coming years. You can download the PDF here.

For now, just a simple congratulations to the team at Airbus for developing an option.

About Devesh Agarwal

A global frequent flyer with over 20 years and four million air miles, he combines his knowledge, experience, skills and passion in aviation, product management, branding, social media, logistics and marketing on Bangalore Aviation. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter. A product management expert he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010.
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