This could very well be the aviation version of the David and Goliath tale; this is the story of a tiny European startup which, in the late 1960s, decided to take on the American giants Boeing and Mc Donnell-Douglas.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, people were travelling around the world in piston engines airplanes. Although this is often described as the Golden Age of air travel, and although the cabins were luxuriously appointed and the food was close to that served in Michelin-star restaurants, the overall experience onboard was sometimes far from glamorous.
The constant vibration of the engines made the travel exhausting, the slow aircraft speed made certain trips last for days and often, these airplanes couldn’t climb above bad weather which means passengers better had their sickness bags ready!
In the early 1950s, European manufacturer De Havilland made headlines and history by bringing the first jet aircraft into service. The Comet was flying twice as fast and twice as high as most piston-engine propellers at the time.
That lead however was short-lived. By the 1960s, civil aviation had boomed and the demand for long-haul heavy airliners had skyrocketed. In this context, the 3 American giants Boeing, Mc Donnell-Douglas and Lockheed seemed unstoppable and were soon producing up to 80% of the world’s airliners.
European manufacturers just didn’t have the scale and finances to compete and they were soon stuck with producing airplanes for their own domestic market; with little possibility to develop and sometimes struggling to just break-even. Things were however about to change.
In the mid-1960s, Concorde was actually, without even knowing, paving the way for the Airbus success story. Concorde was indeed the first airplane to be developed by several European countries, achieving what none of them could have done alone.
At about the same time, there was a growing need in Europe for a larger airplane able to move more people on longer routes; this project was already known in Europe as an “Air-Bus”, which was linguistically working both in the French and English languages. A consortium of European aviation firms from France, England and West-Germany was soon born and working tirelessly on the very first Airbus: the A300. Airbus knew that in order to be taken seriously by airlines around the world, they really had to come up with a revolutionary ground-breaking airplane.
First of all, it was the first wide-body aircraft equipped with only 2 engines. All heavy aircraft back then would have at least 3 of them. That, combined with a construction in composite materials, made it lighter and much more efficient than anything else in the air at that time.
The A300 was also innovative in that its cabin floor was raised; allowing for the simultaneous transport of passengers and cargo, which would increase airlines’ profitability. Last but not least, it was the very first plane equipped with “supercritical wings*”, allowing it to climb quicker to its cruising altitude, and improving its takeoff and landing performances.
The innovative airplane was met with skepticism, especially on the other side of the Atlantic which was still very protectionist and against investing in foreign products. Airlines’ officials were even putting in doubt the survival of Airbus itself, as a young unproven European startup.
Boeing Vice president Jim Austin completely dismissed the project by saying: “this is just another typical government airplane. Airbus will sell a dozen or so and then will go out of business”.
In a first bold commercial move, Airbus’ marketing team decided that the best way to convince the World to fly on their plane was to make a world demo-tour and let the plane prove itself. In 1973, the best sales executives from Airbus embarked in the A300 for what is still considered now as one of the most unusual sales expeditions ever undertaken by an aircraft manufacturer. The A300 flying across the world wasn’t just carrying aircraft spare parts in the cargo holds: it was loaded with crates of the finest French Champagne, bringing a taste of Europe to all of the guests visiting the aircraft during its stopovers.
The sales tour was met with enthusiasm and left a very good impression. However, just as sales were about to take-off, the second blow to Airbus took the form of a global recession and that of an oil crisis.
In 1977, in a genius and second bold move, the Airbus commercial team agreed to give away 4 of its unsold A300 to Eastern Airlines, for no cost at all. Eastern Airlines was back then a very successful major American carrier; which gave tremendous exposure to the A300. Eastern Airlines soon realized that the A300 was more economical, easier to maintain and more reliable than any other aircraft in its fleet. In 1978, the American company signed a jaw-dropping deal with Airbus worth 778 million dollars, buying 23 brand new A300s. The salewas the beginning of the Airbus success story.
The A300 was produced at 561 units between 1972 and 2007, making it one of the longest careers in modern aviation. In fact, it is still operating passenger services today with a handful of airlines. In September 2020, there were still over 230 A300 in service, mostly operating cargo flights for the likes of FedEx and UPS.
The A300 also had several famous and atypical variants such as the Airbus A300 Zero-G and the Airbus A300 Beluga.
* Supercritical wings: if you don’t remember what this is, it is probably time to open your long-forgotten aerodynamics ATPL book!
Article “Airbus A300: The Plane that launched an empire” on www.edition.cnn.com
Article “A300: The aircraft that launched Airbus” on www.airbus.com/company/history
Article “The beginnings of Airbus” on www.modernairliners/com
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