On 29 May, 1969, ministers from Germany and France, later joined by Spain and UK, came together in a consortium to develop the first Airbus aircraft, the twin-aisle A300. US aircraft manufacturers, namely Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, dominated the aviation industry at that time. Fifty years later today, it’s highly likely you will be flying either an Airbus or a Boeing commercial jetliner when you take to the skies.
The A300 was the world’s first twin engine wide-body aircraft. Before this, American aircraft manufacturers offered three-engine aircraft. Having one engine less made the A300 more fuel efficient. To differentiate itself from the competition, and to capitalize on its late start, Airbus made offering a high level of technology the centrepiece of its manufacturing, highlighting the idea that its aircraft made flying easier for pilots, and the experience much more modern.
For instance, take the Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320, which are the two of the best selling aircraft in the world. Both have flown millions of hours safely. The twin-engine Boeing 737’s design goes back over 50 years, with its first flight in 1967. It was a descendant of two early Boeing planes, the four-engine 707 and the 727 trijet. The 737’s fuselage width is still the same size as the 707 that went into service in the 1950s. To fly the 737, a pilot needs to use a W-shaped yoke, which is like a car’s steering wheel. The yoke not only helps the pilot control the altitude but also the direction, pitch and roll.
Launched in 1984, the A320 was a clean-sheet design, which incorporated digital fly-by-wire control systems. Fly-by-wire meant pilots sent their inputs to a computer that would move the control surfaces. This made it easier to control the aircraft, compared to the joystick controller used in gaming consoles. Airbus also replaced the mechanical dials and gauges on the flight deck with glass displays, giving much more information in a computerized manner to the pilot. Airbus transformed how pilots flew the aircraft with the A320, easily making it one of the biggest contributions from Airbus to commercial aviation.
The distinctive duopoly of Boeing and Airbus has also given the world a pleasurable flying experience. When Boeing decided to develop the 787, it went all out to create a new aircraft that was better for the passenger as well as the airlines. The 787 moved away from aluminium in a big way, making about 50% of the aircraft from carbon composites, which made it lighter but comparable in strength. By the use of this new material, Boeing also made sure the aircraft had a better experience for the passengers, given they get better humidity and fresh air circulation inside the aircraft, reducing fatigue and jet lag. No surprise then, that the 787 is one of the biggest hits for Boeing in recent times.
Airbus, on the other hand, made the A380. The double-decker jumbo jet gave airlines the opportunity to create passenger amenities. For instance, Emirates and Etihad put showers on their aircraft. It is not uncommon to grab a drink and watch some television or catch up with a colleague in the lounges that have been created for premium cabin passengers on Qatar Airways and Emirates. Singapore Airlines became the first airline globally to offer closed suites and double beds, and Etihad took it up a notch, creating the Etihad Residence, which includes a living room, a bedroom and a shower on all their A380 aircraft, even bettering First Class service. The arrival of the A380 made sure one could fly ultra-long haul in comfort, such as between Auckland and Dubai which clocks over 17 hours.
While Airbus and Boeing have been going toe-to-toe for the past 50 years, Airbus keeps winning one battle that is important for passengers. Airbus fits 18-inch wide seats on all its aircraft in Economy Class as compared to 17-inch wide seats on other aircraft.
Ultimately, the arrival of Airbus started the contest for better aircraft with greater fuel efficiency and the best passenger experience. As the two compete, they continue to innovate and hence airlines, and therefore passengers, continue to get a better experience at a cheaper cost.
Elevate Your Travel is a column for the business traveller by a business traveller.
Ajay Awtaney is founder and editor of Livefromalounge.com, an Indian aviation website.