The story of Airbus: the genesis of a European giant

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While Airbus is now considered to be an essential name in the aviation industry, the manufacturer came close to not existing at all.  

Between political conflicts and commercial failures, the creation of the European aviation giant has not been without its challenges. Here, AeroTime explores the eventful genesis of Airbus. 

Uncertain beginnings 

In the 1960s, Europe’s fragmented industry had to face the giants across the Atlantic, such as Boeing, Douglas, and Lockheed, and break the monopoly that the North American continent had on the global commercial aviation industry. Dozens of smaller European plane makers were spread across France, Germany, and the United Kingdom.  

Names like de Havilland, Sud-Aviation, or Dornier certainly were not unknown. As commercial aviation developed, Europe managed to design innovative aircraft such as the Comet, the Caravelle, and the legendary Concorde. But the continent’s internal market was far too small and competitive to sustain so many different brands. 

As a comparison, 1,010 copies of Boeing’s first jet airliner, the 707, were built, while its most popular European competitor, the Sud-Aviation Caravelle, only racked up 277 orders. 

Thus, in 1967, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom decided to team up and design a common aircraft: the A300, the world’s first twin-engine widebody airliner. The goal was simple: to pool the industrial capacity and areas of excellence offered by each country. 

France was to be in charge of building the cockpit, and flight controls, Germany would assemble the fuselage and the cabin, and the United Kingdom would take care of the wings and the engines. 

During a second proposal, a decision was made to design an aircraft compatible with several engines, including US-made ones, in a bid to attract customers across the Atlantic. In parallel, Rolls-Royce’s development of the RB207, specifically designed for the aircraft from the RB211, stalled due to a lack of funds and was eventually abandoned. 

This led the British government to withdraw its participation from the Airbus venture. On May 29, 1969, at the Bourget Air Show in Paris, French and German representatives signed an agreement that marked the creation of Airbus Industrie, and the launch of the A300.  

But the project was not entirely without British input. Hawker Siddeley lobbied to remain the sub-contractor of the A300 wings. The twin-engine wide-body airliner made its maiden flight in 1972. Success, however, was not instant. 

A renewed European dimension 

The 1970s marked Spain’s entry into the project. In 1971, the manufacturer Construcciones Aeronáuticas S.A. (CASA) acquired a 4.2% share of Airbus Industrie, leaving Aérospatiale (a merger between Sud-Aviation and other French manufacturers) and Deutsche Airbus (a joint venture of Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm and VFW-Fokker) each with shares of 47.9%.  

In 1973, the A300 embarked on a tour of the American continent, flying through Brazil, the US, and Mexico. The technical demonstration, which included an efficient engine change in Chicago following a bird strike, seemingly paid off. The CEO of Eastern Airlines Frank Borman agreed to lease four A300 aircraft for the winter of 1978 and test them on domestic routes. 

By then, Airbus’ backlog for the aircraft only included 60 orders and options. Thus, the potential order of 50 or more A300s, promised by Borman if the aircraft was suitable, was a welcome boost for the program.  

After a short trial period, Eastern was convinced that the high-capacity aircraft, which was relatively inexpensive to operate, would be an asset and, in March 1978, placed an order for 23 A300B4s with nine options.   

1979 marked the return of the United Kingdom, with British Aerospace, which had absorbed Hawker Siddeley in the meantime, acquiring a 20% share of Airbus Industrie. 

By the end of the 1970s, Airbus held 10% of the global market share in its order book. 

The decade of innovation 

In 1983, Airbus’ second aircraft, the A310, entered service with the German national carrier Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA). It featured innovative technologies, in particular, what Airbus calls its Forward-Facing Crew Cockpit, which allows flying with only two pilots and relinquished the need for a flight technician. 

Five years later, the A320 narrow-body airliner introduced digital fly-by-wire and side-stick flight controls. The aircraft established Airbus as a major player in the aviation industry, with more than 400 orders before its first flight, compared to only 15 orders for the A300.  

Throughout the 1990s, Airbus extended its aircraft catalog, launching two long-haul airliners, the A330 and A340, and diversifying the A320 family with the A318, A319, and A321. In April 2005, the takeoff of the A380, the largest civil aircraft in the world, amazed the whole world as a marvel of engineering, as Concorde had previously done.  

Although, once again, innovation did not go hand in hand with commercial success. 

At the same time, the helicopter division of both Aérospatiale and Deutsche Aerospace merged to form Eurocopter in 1992. With the most extensive catalog of rotorcraft of any manufacturer, Eurocopter soon became the largest helicopter manufacturer in the world. In 2014, it was renamed Airbus Helicopters. 

2014 also saw the creation of Airbus Defence and Space from the different military and spatial units of the group. The division oversees the manufacture of the Eurofighter Typhoon fighter, the Airbus A400M Atlas transport aircraft, and the Airbus A330 MRTT tanker, as well as the design and manufacture of satellites for telecommunication, Earth observation, and geolocation. 

European collaboration at its best? 

Today, the company continues to grow its innovative vision of commercial aviation and is preparing to meet the challenges of tomorrow.  

In September 2020, the European manufacturer unveiled three hydrogen-powered concepts it was working on in a program codenamed ZEROe. Airbus considers hydrogen power to be a “priority strategic axis” in its research and development on sustainable aviation. 

In March 2022, Airbus performed a flight test on an A380 with one of its engines powered by 100% sustainable aviation fuel. 

50 years after its creation, Airbus has become a symbol of successful cooperation between European nations. The giant holds around half of the global civil aviation market. In 2019, it even outdid its main competitor, Boeing, as the largest aerospace company by revenue.  

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