Retrospective: The beginning of the end of Airbus A340

Airbus was competing with Boeing, McDonnell Douglas and Lockheed’s TriStar only in short and mid-hauls until 1993. But in the long-haul market, Boeing was robust with its 747 since 1970. To fill the long-haul market gap, Airbus designated the A340 to be a “true globe-trotter” that airlines could use on their longest routes. With better operating economics than the 747, the A340 was poised to take over the Queen’s throne as the king of long-haul flights.

On October 25, 1991, Airbus A340-300 made its maiden flight, before joining fleets of launch customers Air France and Lufthansa and officially commencing service in 1993. On November 10, 2011, Airbus announced that the company has finished the production of the once record-breaking quadjet and will not take on any more new orders. Merve Kara from AeroTime looks at the 18-years of history of the A340.

Record Breaker

Airbus A340 started out with a good beginning in 1993. On June 16, 1993, the aircraft, dubbed “World Ranger”, flew from the Paris Airshow to Auckland, New Zealand, and back in 48 hours and 22 minutes, breaking six world records, including the longest non-stop flight by an airliner. This record was broken by Boeing 777 on a 12,455.34 statute miles (20,044.20 km) flight from Seattle, the U.S., to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in 1997.

Airbus developed four A340 variants: A340-200, A340-300, A340-500 and A340-600. The A340-600 was the largest-capacity member of the Airbus A340 Family, which would become the longest-range commercial airliner until Boeing 777-200LR appeared on the stage in 2005. Virgin Atlantic announced it will become the worldwide launch customer for the new A340-600 in August 1997.

As the competition continued between Airbus and Boeing, the U.S. planemaker came up with a new move in 1999. When Singapore Airlines ordered 17 A340-300s, all 17 of the A340-300s were purchased by Boeing in order to sell 10 new 777’s to the carrier in 1999. It would not be the last bad news for the A340. The Wall Street Journal reported that Thai Airways International halted its 17-hour non-stop route from Bangkok to New York to save fuel costs. Thai Airways flew the last flight on the route on July 1, 2008, and sold its four A340-500s.

Airbus A340

Airbus A340

Last goodbyes to the A340

On November 10, 2011, Airbus announced that the production of A340 had ended. As for the reasons behind the decision, the company’s spokesperson told AeroTime: “Given the low orders placed for the aircraft type, Airbus decided that no new A340s would be built from November 2011. Airbus however still fully support the global A340 fleet as long as they are on operation”. When all airlines decide to retire their A340s, it will be the final ending for the aircraft.

There are other ideas on why Airbus stopped the production of A340. Aerospace engineer Thomas Stagliano shared his ideas with AeroTime: “Airbus was developing the A330 and the A340 at roughly the same time. The A340 with four engines and the A330 with two engines. First flights in the early 1990s. By then it became obvious that the airlines wanted long-range two-engine aircraft with the more modern larger and efficient and more reliable jet engines”.

Stagliano thinks that the competition between Boeing and Airbus hastened the process of ending the manufacturing of A340s.“Boeing came out with the 777 a year later in 1993 and that was a long-range two-engine airliner and that was the doom for the A340. Airbus needed to go back and make larger versions of the A330,” he explained.“The A340 ran its course quickly and then Airbus followed Boeing into composite aircraft with the A350 to counter the 787,” Stagliano added.

Recently, Virgin Atlantic announced that the company will phase out its last remaining Airbus A340-600s at the end of 2019 as it announces new order for 14 A330neos. By that time, 131 A340-500/600s were made, of which 123 remain in operation (as of July 30, 2019, including Virgin Atlantic’s six), according to Airbus’ Orders and Deliveries file. The largest operators of the type remain Lufthansa and Iberia (both airlines have 17 A340s in their fleets).



Image: Airbus