The Airbus A380 – The production story of the biggest commercial jet

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On April 27 2005 a new era in commercial aviation began wuth the first flight of the largest passenger transport aircraft in the world – the Airbus A380. This event marked an important milestone following a decade of a study, design and development of work, and raised the stakes in the ever lasting battle between Airbus and Boeing for the crown of the world’s premier commercial airline manufacturer.

In the early 1990s almost every major civil aircraft manufacturer in the worldwas developing plans to produce a next generation hight-capacity long-range airliner to challenge the mighty Boeing 747’s dominance. As industry consolidation and the enormous cost of developing such an aircraft hit-home in the 1990s the end of the decade saw only Boeing and Airbus harbouring hopes to dominate this most prestigious of markets. In the mid-1990s the future animosity between Airbus and Boeing had yet to emerge, as the pair co-operated on the joint VLCA (Very Large Commercial Aircraft)programme. As the study progressed, Airbus, sensing Boeing’s lack of commitment, began it’s own independent project and, when the VLCA teaming disintegrated in 1996, Airbus integrated the work into own efforts. Boeing, heavily committed to funding its model 777, decided to withdraw from the race – expecting that improved versions of it’s 747 would suffice for what it percieved to be a shrinking market. Airbus, however, as the flagship of the European industry and the co-operation, was determined to press ahead.

The mid-1990s saw Airbus consider a range of novel and occasionally outrageous configurations before, in 1998, settling on a twin-passenger deck, four engined design, knowns as A3XX, It was a true monster, able to carry some 550 passengers in standard and over 800 in all-economy configurations. Two full-length passenger decks, complemented by a lower cargo deck, ensured the aircraft’s take-off weight would exceed a mammoth 1,200,000 lb (550 tonnes) and its colossal length of 238 ft 8 inches (72.75 m)and the wing span of 261 ft 9 3/4 inches (79.80 m) dwarfed anything the company had previously built. However, a multitude of strict performance, economic and operating criteria would have to be met before Airbus could consider putting the aircraft into production.

To keep the aircraft’s weight within realistic limits, reduce fatigue and corrosion problems and reinforce the company’s reputation, Airbus proposed unprecedented levels of composite materials in the aircraf’s structure. Some 25% of the aircraft is of composites, of which 22% is carbon fibre reinforced plastic and 3% GLARE fibre metal laminate (used for the first time on a civilian airliner). The use of these materials not only saves weight, but also leads to decreased fuel burn, fewer emissions and lower operating costs. he aircraft’s powerful hydraulic system also provides a weight saving by allowing smaller pipes and components to be incorporated. Back-up electric systems give the aircraft the ability to land in the event of total hydaulic failure and this, combined with the triple redundancy fly-by-wire fligt control system, provides the level of safety so vital on any airliner.

The A380’s ‘glass’ two-crew cockpit builds on the successful format developed for Airbus’s other products, incorporating integrated modular avionics datalinks, pull-out keyboards for the pilots and the latest in the electronic flight aids, with all vital information displayed on a large multi-function flat-panel display. The commonality of the A330/ A340 series also reduces the amount of training needed for pilots transitioning to the type.

The range of the advanced technologies is not restricted to the cockpit. The passenger cabin is equipped with an advanced fibre-optic distribution network, the first on a commercial airliner, offering an unprecedented choice of inflight entertainment. With 49 per cent more floor space than the rival 747-400, Airbus has also proposed a wide range of interior designs for it’s A380, including casinos, bars, sleeping areas even onboard spa baths and massage suites. Various exotic cabin configurations have been suggested for the A380, but it us likely that customers will opt for a less ambitious configurations, choosing passenger capacity above luxury.

With the environmental movement making increasing demands on air travel, and customer airlines looking for unparalleled operating efficiency, the A380 could not succeed without new, efficient, quiet and lower-emission engines. After exaustive development work two options are available for potential A380 customers – Rolls-Royce’s Trent 900 and Engine Alliance’s GP7200 (a joint venture between Pratt & Whitney and General Electric) Rated in the 70,000 to 80,000 lb (311 to 356 kN) thrust range, these engines not only produce a significiently lower noise footprint than those of the older 747, but also offer the fuel efficiency to allow Airbus to claim a seap-per mile cost 17 per cent better than that of it’s rival.

After a series of delays caused by various factors, the most serious one involving the complexity of the cabin wiring, the first aircraft to be sold, MSN003, was handed over to Singapore Airlines on 15 October 2007 and entered commercial service with an inaugural flight from Singapore to Sydney ten days later. At the end of the October 2007 total orders for the A380 stood at 193, shared betweeen 18 customers, of which 165 were firm.

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