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Tuesday is a big day in aviation: Airbus turns 50. The European consortium founded in 1969 to make just one airplane has evolved into a multinational company with a full family of jets, and a household name among flyers. Last year, Airbus delivered 800 airplanes to Boeing’s 806: The two rivals are the only companies in the world making twin-aisle jets, and in single-aisle airplanes they are far, far bigger than anybody else.
Not bad for a company that, at its birth, was looking to sell at most a few hundred copies of the A300, the airplane that ended up instead launching its career as a world-class aerospace venture.
Airbus has, in fact, been a technological innovator since its inception. It built the first twin-engined wide-body airplane, the A300; the first fly-by-wire airliner, the A320, using electrical impulses to move the control surfaces; the biggest passenger plane ever made, the A380. Its A350 flies the longest nonstop flight in the world, which the A340 did before it.
In the US, though, the European upstart was an absolute nobody until Eastern Air Lines leased a few A300s in 1977 as a short-term tryout, and liked them so much that it bought a lot more. Now, every one of the big US airlines except Southwest flies Airbuses.An Airbus A300 of Air France landing at London Heathrow, 1974 (Photo by STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)
It all began on May 29, 1969, with the signing of an agreement between the French and German governments to build an aircraft, the A300. FlightGlobal magazine recounts that the term “air bus” originated at a preliminary meeting in 1965, and somehow stuck because it made sense in French, German and English (the British, although not part of that 1969 agreement, took part in the airplane’s design and in the consortium that eventually came out of it.)
The plane flew first in 1972 and entered service with Air France two years later, starting a revolution that reverberates today: On flights up to medium haul, it could do everything that four- and three-engined jets could, but with only two engines. That was the beginning of the twin-engine trend for big wide-body airplanes; it’s why when we cross oceans today we are likely to do so in a plane with just two engines.
The A300 was also much quieter than the equivalent 250-seaters it competed against, which had three or four engines. Australian transport Minister Charles Jones and members of the press, Airbus officials and Department of Civil Aviation Officers listen to the noise made by the A300 as it lands at the Melbourne airport during a demostration tour in 1974 (Photo by Trevor James Robert Dallen/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
In 1983, Airbus launched the A310, a shrunken A300 that had enough range to cross the Atlantic. It marked the arrival of the European consortium in an exclusive American (and Soviet, at the time) province: big jets that crossed oceans. Airbus was there to stay.
What really put Airbus on the map as a credible rival to Boeing was its first single-aisle plane: the A320. First flown in 1987, it quickly gained several siblings, from the endearingly tiny A318 to the stretched A321. The A320 family is the Airbus you’re most likely to find yourself flying on; it’s second in worldwide sales only to Boeing’s 737.
With the entry of the A340 in service in 1993, Airbus became a real all-around player. It finally had a true long-haul jet — and it was long indeed: That year, an A340 beat the nonstop flight record for a passenger plane with a monster jump from Paris to Auckland, New Zealand. Granted, that was a demonstration flight with no passengers, but even with a full load the A340 was no slouch. Its A340-500 version flew for years the Singapore-Newark route for Singapore Airlines, covering 10,000 miles and sporting state-of-the-art (at the time of its 2004 debut!) flat-bed seats in business.
Singapore Airlines still flies that nonstop service, except with the A350, the successor to the A340, which has just two engines and exceptional fuel economy.
But not everything has been a success for Airbus, and none of its failures has been bigger than the A380’s. The biggest passenger airplane in the world has sold poorly, and the assembly line will be closed in 2021; Airbus never really made money on it. The mood was altogether different in 2005, when French president Jacques Chirac showed up in person to congratulate the first flight’s pilots.
The disappearance of the A380 will be a sad day for passengers, though. Its sheer size makes it possible to install amenities that not even the Boeing 747 can match: a shower in first class on Emirates, the unparalleled Residence (with its own butler) on Etihad, an actual duty-free shop on Korean Air. That’s all going away when the last of the A380s touches down for good. But that won’t be until a couple of decades from now.
Today, Airbus is concentrating on the new generation of the A320, its single-aisle cash cow. With new engines, the A320neo family burns about 20% less fuel per seat than its predecessor, and airlines are buying it up. In the US, Alaska Airlines (pictured below) and American Airlines already fly the A321neo; Delta will soon.
The company’s newest product, though, was made by someone else: the A220, whose flight deck is seen below, is a renamed Bombardier C-Series jet, and came into the family when Airbus bought the program from its financially ailing Canadian maker.
These days, there are no new Airbuses in the works. Still, around the world, there are around 8,400 of them in service. If you haven’t flown on an Airbus yet, you most likely will.
Featured photo of the Airbus assembly plant in Toulouse by REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images
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