Airbus Delays A3XX Commercial Launch
by Pierre Sparaco
(Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in Aviation Week & Space Technology, Dec. 19, 1999, p. 46)
TOULOUSE, France — Although Airbus Industrie intends to launch the $11-12 billion A3XX Very Large Transport Airplane or VLTA by the end of 2000, its supervisory board last week failed to authorize commercial proposals to potential launch customers.
In a carefully worded compromise, on Dec. 8, the board cautiously authorized the European consortium's management to approach A3XX-interested airlines at top management level to get clear indication about their commitment to A3XX passenger/cargo versions, number of aircraft in demand and time frame. It added that “further decisions” will be taken during next year's first half “with a view to confirm [the A3XX's] entry into service in 2005. The board members also delayed a long-waited decision to select a location for the A3XX's final assembly line.
The Europeans' tergiversations buy time to finalize arrangements with additional risk-sharing partners and further strengthen the huge program's business plan. In addition, the European aerospace industry's ongoing restructuring is complicating the consortium's decision-making process.
Aerospatiale Matra, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (DASA) and Construcciones Aeronauticas (CASA), which jointly own 80% of Airbus, are scheduled to merge next spring to form the European Aeronautic, Defense and Space Co. (EADS). The far-reaching consolidation move, which follows several years of immobility, could rapidly revitalize efforts to replace Airbus' outdated Groupement d'Interet Economique, a loose industrial grouping, by the long-overdue single corporate entity.
Despite Asia's financial crisis that seriously impacted key A3XX potential launch customers — plus additional uncertainties surrounding the VLTA market — Airbus' confidence in the A3XXremains unaltered. The program's economic viability has now been confirmed, Airbus officials claimed. They stressed that major international airlines in the next 20 years will acquire an estimated 1,200 A3XX-category aircraft to operate the world's busiest long-haul routes.
Airbus' supervisory board is believed to require commitments from 3-5 “ reference” carriers for a total of 30-40 aircraft to approve the program's go-ahead, on the condition that the program's funding is finalized.
In contrast with the Europeans' optimistic views, Boeing's market forecast shows a demand for 930 aircraft of 747-400 size and larger over the next 20 years. However, within this category, more than half of the requirement, or approximately 565 aircraft, is for 400-500-seat aircraft, leaving a projected requirement for airplanes of 500 seats or more at only 365, most of them during the forecast's second decade.
A Boeing official last week said that the latest delay in the A3XX program was to be expected. “The market is evolving into the direction of nonstop service between cities. Average airplane size is coming down as the pace of route fragmentation accelerates around the world.” Added the Boeing official: “We have no problem if Airbus ultimately decides to go forward with the program as long as it does so on a purely commercial basis.”
Airbus Large Aircraft Div. and about 20 airlines, all of them ranked as potential customers, jointly formed working groups to regularly review the proposed VLTA's operational requirements, performance and technical definition. The group includes Air Canada, Air France, Air New Zealand, All Nippon Airways, Cargolux, Emirates, Iberia, Japan Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, Lufthansa German Airlines, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic Airways and FedEx. The A3XX's tentative price tag is about $220 million, at current economic conditions.
According to Aerospatiale Matra Chief Executive Philippe Camus, in an effort to streamline the Airbus consortium's management structure, which strictly enforces a unanimity rule, the proposed EADS' member companies this month agreed to speak with a single voice at the supervisory board's decision-making meetings. However, they have not succeeded yet in reconciling divergent views on EADS' management.
Today, Airbus' primary goal is to attract more risk-sharing partners in the A3XX program. So far, it concluded agreements with Saab Aircraft, Eurocopter's French branch and mid/small-size manufacturers such as Hurel-Dubois and Latecoere in France, GKN Westland in the U.K., Stork Aerospace in the Netherlands and the Belairbus grouping in Belgium. Finmecanicca/Alenia Aerospazio, which failed to join Airbus as a full-fledged member, tentatively plans to acquire a 10-15% stake in the A3XX, but no agreement has been concluded yet. Up to 40% of the program is expected to be funded by the additional partners.
In the last few months, the consortium's member companies initiated negotiations with their four respective European governments in preparation for multiyear loan arrangements that could cover up to 33% of each company's share in the program. They would comply with the U.S.-European Union July 1992 agreement on commercial transport funding.
Although all-new systems are still being studied, the aircraft's basic definition is now frozen to protect the 2005 service entry date, according to Robert Lafontan, Airbus Large Aircraft Div. vice president for engineering and product development. The A3XX concept also has a built-in capability for longer term derivatives, he added.
The A340-inspired fly-by-wire flight controls and systems will use four independent power systems to actuate control surfaces. Two hydraulic systems will be complemented by electro-hydrostatic actuators and electric backup hydraulic actuators, an electric ram air turbine, and electric motor pumps for ground use only.
“The flight deck's design, which was recently completed, is a natural evolution of the A320/A340 concept,” Lafontan said. However, it will include new features such as larger and interactive flight displays, takeoff acceleration monitoring and engine thrust displays and a vertical situation awareness system.
In an initiative set to collect comments and preferences before freezing the cockpit's concept, 21 airline pilots recently reviewed here Airbus' studies and “flew” Aerospatiale Matra's Epopee simulator, Catherine Aubert said. She is Airbus simulator research manager. Although Epopee is not a full-flight simulator, it reproduces a broad range of A3XX flight configurations. Epopee, which is complemented by a human factor interface demonstrator, is also used to validate the cockpit of the Airbus Military Co.'s proposed A400M military transport.
Although the A3XX was designed to comply with the 80 X 80 meters (260 X 260 ft.) apron “box” so that it could operate at existing airport facilities, taxiing the nearly outsize aircraft will require a video camera system. After evaluating the merits of several locations, engineers said cameras will be installed under the fuselage and on the vertical stabilizer's tip.
Airbus' current schedule is to complete the double-deck aircraft's final definition in early 2002, begin the No.1 airframe's final assembly during the third quarter of 2003 and enter into the flight test phase in mid-2004. Five aircraft are scheduled to participate in the FAA/European Joint Aviation Authorities certification program.
The envisioned product range's basic model is the A3XX-100, a 555-seat aircraft in three-class cabin configuration. The 1,190,000-lb.-maximum-takeoff weight -100 is designed to carry a 187,000- lb. payload 7,650 naut. mi. with four 67,000-75,000 lb.-thrust Rolls-Royce Trent 900s or General Electric/Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200s. It would be rapidly followed by the extended-range A3XX-100R, which would carry the same payload on 8,750-naut.-mi.-range aircraft as well as all-cargo and combi versions. Maximum takeoff weight of the all-cargo A3XX-100F would be increased to 1,285,000 lb. to enable the aircraft to carry up to 331,000 lb. of freight over 5,725 naut. mi.
Paradoxically, the shortened-fuselage A3XX-50R would come later. It recently evolved into a 481-seat aircraft, up from 455 seats. No schedule has been determined as yet for the stretched-fuselage 656-seat A3XX-200.
Yes, I actually *do* work for an airline,how about you?