When the Airbus A320 first took flight in 1987, how many observers realised they were watching the maiden voyage of one of the most successful aircraft of all time? Thirty years later, nearly 11,000 A320 family aircraft in four variants have been produced on four assembly lines in four countries on three continents, with Airbus planning to manufacture some 60 aircraft per month from 2019.
This remarkable aircraft continues its development today, with some much-needed program maturity coming to the A320neo program, and a major cabin upgrade coming from Airbus’s Airspace project, an effort to translate the much-vaunted passenger experience from the A350 XWB onto the workhorse of much of the world’s narrowbody fleet.
“The A320 has been evolving from the start, on a continual basis,” Airbus’s airline marketing director for the Pacific region Vincent Tessier tells Australian Aviation.
“For example, we moved back in the 1990s to the CFM56-5B and the IAE V2500 engines. Then later on we moved to the sharklets, and then the A320neo – those are very significant steps, but throughout its life it’s been a continuous innovation. Today we are investing something like €300 million a year in terms of development for the A320 family, the SHARP [Short Airfield Package], research and development, and improvements to the cabin.”
Notably, Airbus did not début the Airspace package of cabin improvements for the A320 family – unveiled in mockup form at September’s Airline Passenger Experience Association Expo – at the same time as the A320neo. This tick-tock update pattern is sound program management, because it reduces the number of moving objects within a program at any one time, allowing resources to be focussed on different parts of the aircraft at different times, reducing the overall resources needed, and also reducing risk. Indeed, Boeing also uses this model: where Airbus produced the A320neo improvements for the airframe followed by Airspace for the cabin, Boeing first created the 737 Boeing Sky Interior (developed from its widebody Boeing Signature Interior) and later introduced the 737 MAX.
Yet the A320neo’s early service has not been without some turbulence, with launch customer Qatar Airways declining to take its initial aircraft because of engine issues, Lufthansa taking over to launch the aircraft, in-service teething problems, and fleets of engine-less A320neos sitting at Airbus’s factories – which the airframer nicknamed “gliders”.
Airbus tells Australian Aviation that it has secured commitments from the engine manufacturers to achieve its target deliveries, including a strong commitment from Pratt & Whitney to resolve the maturity issues with its PurePower PW1100G (formerly GTF, or geared turbofan). Issues at P&W means that aircraft currently sitting engine-less awaiting their PW1100Gs can more accurately be described as more of a “no engine option” than “new engine option”.
The crux of the matter, though, is that Airbus is dependent on its engine manufacturers delivering on their commitments.
This dependency is, of course, nothing new in aviation, with numerous aircraft programs throughout commercial airliner history being delayed as the result of engine developments, or indeed by other suppliers. But it is a dependency that is increasingly obvious in the age of dozens of long-lens photographers at delivery centres and specialised websites tracking every aircraft as it is wheeled from a final assembly line to be either flown or stored without engines.
Every innovation in aviation takes time and effort – and often trial and error. That’s especially true where new paths are being trodden, and that’s something the A320 has always done.
The A320, now a common sight, was a remarkably groundbreaking airframe
It is easy to forget today that the A320 was revolutionary in its introduction of a fly-by-wire flight control system, now a standard part of commercial aviation. The A320’s fuselage cross-section, meanwhile, afforded wider seats, especially in economy, closer to the comfortable five-abreast McDonnell Douglas DC-9/MD-80 than the Boeing 737 (which shared its narrowbody cross-section with the 707, 727 and 757). And a larger cargo bay area enabled unit load device cargo containers, a rarity on narrowbody aircraft.
Fly-by-wire brought numerous benefits, such as flight envelope protection. And, as Airbus’s Tessier highlights, “one of the things that is still unique in its practical benefit to operators is the commonality between the different members of the Airbus family. Between the A320, the A330 and the A350, you can fly them with one pool of pilots.”
Those pilots also use a sidestick input rather than what was, at the time, the traditional yoke – a change that raised hackles on many a padded 1980s shoulder.
Of course, the A320 that most readers will think of today is not the original A320: that was the A320-100, of which only 21 were ever built, and which were initially distinguishable from the definitive A320-200 (which also introduced increased fuel capacity) only by their lack of wingtip fences.
The A320 of 1987 was created in a rather different commercial world to that in which Airbus finds itself today, with Boeing and McDonnell Douglas dominating the narrowbody landscape as earlier generations of aircraft were retired.
The original 150-seater A320 was followed, fairly swiftly, by the stretched A321 in 1988, increasing capacity to 186 passengers. Five years later, the shorter A319 was launched for the 124-passenger market, with the final current member of the family – the A318 – launching with a 107-passenger capacity in 1999. Developments in seating density, low-cost airlines and safety certification have all meant that each aircraft can now carry more passengers than that, with the A321 offering up to a 240-passenger capacity at 28in pitch.
Currently, all variants of the family are assembled at Airbus’s Hamburg Finkenwerder facility, where the airframer has just opened its second A320 family final assembly line, and in Tianjin. The original final assembly line at Toulouse-Blagnac produces only A320, while the Mobile, Alabama plant assembles the A320 and A321 variants. Once all the lines are operating and the A320neo program reaches adequate maturity, Airbus expects to manufacture 60 A320 family aircraft per month, likely by mid-2019.
In-service improvements have been a major part of the A320 program, including the 2007 A320 Enhanced generation of airframe and cabin updates, the sharklets that Airbus began delivering to launch customer Air New Zealand in 2012, as well as incremental performance updates throughout its life.
The greatest impact, though, has come from the A320neo – neo for “new engine option” – which quickly became the fastest selling aircraft of all time, offering new engines from Pratt & Whitney and CFM International.
Airbus’s chief operating officer for customers John Leahy has said that the airframer will continue producing A320ceo aircraft – for “current engine option” for as long as customers are willing to buy them, and indeed with oil at relative lows there seems to be no shortage of airlines willing to do a deal for some cheap end-of-line A320ceos – whether that’s Delta Air Lines’ affinity for late-model older jets or smaller carriers’ willingness to receive the airline sales equivalent of an apologetic bouquet of flowers in the form of some A320ceo aircraft to make up for delays with their A320neo deliveries.
Despite a number of production issues, the A320neo generation of aircraft looks certain to cement the A320’s place as one of the most successful aircraft families of all time.
Putting the e in neo, new engines breathed new life into the A320
It seems fair to say that the A320neo has been one of the most remarkable sales stories of Airbus’s history, which contains a fair few of those stories for comparison. Airbus’s decision to re-engine and package performance improvements on its narrowbody family looks, in the 20/20 of hindsight, like a no-brainer, even with the engine issues that have plagued the A320neo, and indeed the neo both stole a march on Boeing and made inroads into long-term customers.
Arguably, American Airlines’ 2011 decision to purchase the A320neo family – the first time American itself had ordered an Airbus aircraft, although predecessor carriers like US Airways had done so extensively – drove Boeing towards its 737 MAX decision.
Orders flooded in for the neo family, with 5,168 A319neo, A320neo and A321neo aircraft to date. Over 70 per cent of those are the main A320neo model, with almost all the rest the stretched A321neo variant. Just 51 of the shorter A319neo aircraft have been ordered, many of which will continue their specialised “hot and high” performance role, replacing that part of the Boeing 757’s market just as the A321neo replaces it in the higher capacity narrowbody mission profile. There is no A318neo, with Airbus no longer competing at that end of the market.
Yet if the sales story of the A320neo was a great success, the production story of the neo, and in particular the chapter written by launch engine supplier Pratt & Whitney, has not covered the company in quite so much glory. Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000G and CFM International’s LEAP-1A engines power the A320neo family, offering irresistible fuel burn savings to airlines of an advertised 15 per cent, with in-service improvements often exceeding those numbers depending on mission profile – when the engines are working, that is.
The PW1000G in particular has experienced a number of design, production and teething issues. Rotor bow, caused by uneven cooling of the rotor shaft, caused deformations and required fixes. Start times, too, were markedly longer: seven minutes compared with 90-120 seconds on the previous generation of A320 engines. In service, issues with air seals and combustors, together with parts shortages (and, without wishing to put too fine a point on it, shortages of engines to put on planes on assembly lines) have meant a rocky start for the Pratt & Whitney-powered aircraft, but deliveries are picking up again with the completion of the second A320 family final assembly line in Hamburg.
Supplier management has been problematic at Airbus of late, as delays with the A350, A320neo and A330neo programs, as well as quality problems with cabin interiors in particular, have shown. It’s still a sensitive subject, and Airbus declines to discuss deliveries with the media.
Instead, a spokesperson noted in a statement that, “We expect to deliver close to three times more A320neos than in 2016 (around 200). We are dependent on our engine manufacturers delivering on their commitments. We have a strong commitment from Pratt & Whitney to fix maturity issues, provide engines and support our deliveries. In tandem, we are working closely with the engine makers and our customers on next deliveries, which are agreed with the customer and remain confidential.”
In context, engine problems of this scale have historically either been fatal to a program – Lockheed’s L-1011 comes to mind – or largely historically irrelevant. It would be surprising almost beyond belief if the A320neo were to fall into the former category, and certainly its order book seems to have shown little lack of appetite, even if airlines are leaning away from Pratt & Whitney and towards CFM in their recent engine choices.
As the program matures, however, airlines will be able to leverage the innovations of both airframer and enginemakers, and passengers too will benefit.
The A320 Airspace cabin seems set to revitalise the experience of flying on an A320
The big news with Airspace is bigger bins – and it’s such big news that Airbus is making them available in 2019, a full year before the rest of the Airspace package is planned to arrive.
On balance, it seems many airlines are keen to realise the passenger experience and operational benefits of the larger bins a year early, even if it means creating a second maintenance subfleet, given the relatively small overhead storage currently available on the A320 family. Yet others, particularly leasing companies, will be keen to avoid their late-2010s A320 family fleets including existing A320 interiors with the current bin, existing A320 interiors with the new bin, and the new Airspace interior with the new bin.
Surprisingly, the Airspace bins remain flip-up rather than becoming a swing-down pivot bin, which Airbus says maximises space and reduces complexity. Across a four-frame bin, the Airspace product permits eight 24 x 16 x 10in bags, up from five, to be stowed vertically and end in, but also enables larger carryons to be stowed overhead (though reducing the space available for other bags).
Interiors supplier Zodiac Aerospace has for several years been showing a retrofit option for larger bins, initially and unfortunately named ISIS but now called ECOS. Where Zodiac’s version pivots up, Airbus’s flips the lid. The jury remains out on which of the two options is better: Zodiac’s may provide slightly more space and prove easier to close, but Airbus’s comes with the lack of supplementary type certification (a big plus for lessors and resale) and contains fewer moving parts.
That easier-to-close aspect will, of course, be crucial for fast turns and happy flight attendants. The flip-up bin lids in Airspace fit almost flush to the ceiling, out of reach of shorter flight attendants. Owing to regional variations in average population heights, this will affect some areas of the world more than others, and Airbus is still in the process of designing and prototyping a mechanism to actually close the bins. Airbus also rather cleverly demonstrated a mockup where the bins only opened on a cutaway section that did not face other bins or seats, so verifying the passenger mechanics of hoisting a bag into a high bin is not yet possible.
In addition, Airspace provides an extra inch of width at shoulder-level, due to increased sidewall sculpting, which will give window seat passengers a little extra space. Also adding a sense of space will be the sculpted entryway and the overhead lighting pattern, as well as new window shrouding that increases the perception of room.
It’s unfortunate that Airbus didn’t take the opportunity of enlarging the A320’s relatively small windows with the A320neo, though. Flying on a 737 or the Bombardier CSeries in particular, it’s truly astounding how much of a difference a larger window makes.
New A321neo variants in particular show much promise in the middle of the market
With two new enabling options, the A321neo is expanding Airbus’s presence in an area of the market presently dominated internationally by the Boeing 757, but not really found within Australia. The first, the A321LR, previously called the A321neoLR, adds optional extra fuel tanks to reach a range of 4,000nm.
Drawing range circles around Australian capital cities, Brisbane is especially interesting, with the extra 500nm range between an A321ceo and an A321LR adding much of continental south-east Asia, coastal southern China, and central/western Japan into the picture. From Perth, the A321LR’s range opens up routes deep into the Indian subcontinent and much of central China.
Inbound travel to Australia is already booming with the rise of A330 operations by Chinese airlines from secondary cities in particular. Will the next decade see a second boom in tertiary or even quaternary routes, both in terms of nonstop flights from “small” Chinese cities with populations larger than Sydney, and from larger Chinese cities to smaller Australian airports?
A further stretch to the A321neo is not out of the question either, especially with the strength shown by Boeing at this year’s Paris Airshow, where the 737 MAX 10 won both new orders and conversions. A notional A322 model to enable carriers to offer the economic round number of 250 seats over a slightly reduced range – or, say, a full 200-passenger relatively premium Australian transcontinental narrowbody – with or without the A321LR’s extra fuel tanks, will certainly be attractive to operators in this region.
Airbus may well be waiting to try to steal another march on Boeing, this time with the 797, or New Market Aircraft, which the American airframer continues to develop since the 737 MAX failed to make inroads into the 757 replacement market. Essentially, if the A321neo and A321LR have made substantial progress into this space already, what will an extra 12-24 seats, per aircraft say, do to its fortunes?
Part of getting to that 250-plus-seat narrowbody future, of course, is adequate evacuation options, so Airbus’s Cabin-Flex program offers airlines the ability to select various sizes and numbers of doors in order to maximise cabin real estate where it matters, with evacuation certification carried out by computer simulation.
An airline selecting a “max-pax” all-economy layout, for example, may wish to select a door option that allows more seats to be squeezed into the aircraft, while one wishing for a premium-heavy layout with fully flat beds in business class may prefer to choose an option that deactivates doors 2 just in front of the wing, enabled thanks to the fact that fewer passengers on board require fewer evacuation doors.
With few A321neo aircraft delivered to date, the relative popularity of each Cabin-Flex option is still opaque, but as more A321neos are revealed, the strength of each of these Cabin-Flex options will become clear.
With more than 5,000 A320neo aircraft to deliver, Airbus looks set to produce the A320 family for the best part of the next decade at current backlogs, rate plans and production capabilities. The airframer has some breathing room and research & development time to determine which technologies will be the enablers for its next generation of narrowbody aircraft.
The competition is largely restricted to Boeing at present: Bombardier’s political woes thanks to Boeing’s heavy-handed use of US trade regulators puts a question-mark over the future of the CSeries as a whole, let alone a potential stretched CS500 variant to sit just below the A320 in size, while the COMAC C919 is unlikely to be a serious competitor this generation, particularly given Airbus’s Tianjin final assembly line advantage.
Will the future be an elliptical fuselage? An electric jet? The end of the narrowbody tube-with-wings? A 3D-printed carbon-fibre airliner? The crux for Airbus will be finding, developing and maximising those new technologies – not least because the A320 will be a hard act for any aircraft to follow.
This feature story first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Australian Aviation.