Observation Deck

E Unum...Pluribus


Airbus has come a long way since its first delivery in 1974

Readers from outside the US may wonder about the title; it would not be surprising to find some who think that this sounds familiar, but don’t know its origin. They would be right, since it’s essentially a re-ordering of the national motto of the United States, E Pluribus Unum. This Latin language phrase is generally translated as “Out of many, one,” or “One from many,” reflecting the formation of the US as a union of states. It also reflects the fact that the origins of the people that inhabit this country are more diverse than in most other countries, and represent a very wide array of geography.

So what would reversing the order of the terms mean, and what does this have to do with commercial aviation? I’d suggest that the first question could be answered by either “Out of one, many,” or “Many from one.” The answer to the second question goes back 40 years to the delivery of the first Airbus aircraft, an A300B, to Air France in 1974. I think that it will also be apparent that from this “unity” event, a plethora of aircraft has resulted.

In reality, the formation of Airbus in 1970 was another example of E Pluribus Unum, although “multiple” probably needs to be substituted for “many” in translating it to English. By the late 1960s, the US dominated the production of airline aircraft globally. While the first two commercial jets to enter service both emanated from Europe, essentially, in the form of the British Comet, and the Tu-104 from the Soviet Union, the US had seized the market share lead by this time. Notwithstanding this, however, the Russians own the honor of having the longest continuous commercial jet service, dating to 1956, due to the hiatus in Comet service between 1954 and 1958.

There were several reasons for the US dominance in this field. First, the United States had the largest airline industry, by far, at the time, thereby producing a significant demand component for airline aircraft. Second, Germany was prohibited both from producing aircraft and operating airlines for a number of years following World War II; Lufthansa, for example, did not begin operations after the war until 1955.

A more significant difficulty was that British airliner production, and to a lesser extent that of France, tended to cater to the needs of the flag carriers of each country. This produced designs that worked well for these carriers, but didn’t necessarily cater to global demand requirements. The US, with its many airlines, both domestic, and following the war, also for international service, was more market-oriented, which aided its airliner manufacturers, particularly Boeing, Douglas, Convair and Lockheed, to fare well in the global marketplace.

Some European-built aircraft were acquired by US carriers, including the Vickers Viscount and BAC One-Eleven. The French-built Caravelle secured United as a customer, although a planned sale to TWA did not come to fruition. On the other hand, the de Havilland Trident, the first tri-jet, and the Vickers VC-10 did not obtain any US customers. While the latter was well-liked by passengers, and had excellent hot and high performance due to the requirements of its primary customer BOAC, it was bested handily in terms of sales by the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8. The French Mercure sold only to a single customer: French domestic carrier Air Inter.

Thus, European aerospace leaders concluded that banding together as a single entity was necessary if they were to survive, much less prosper. At first, this involved a tri-partite cooperative venture between the British, French and German industries. However, the UK dropped out of the consortium initially, leaving it as a purely continental venture. CASA of Spain joined in 1977; the British returned in 1979.

Attacking the US commercial juggernaut required a careful strategy, so that the nascent enterprise would not be overwhelmed initially. Accordingly, the A300 was developed as the first widebody aircraft with only two engines, in a size/range category below that of the 747, DC-10 and L-1011. Initial sales were slow, but eventually even the bellwether US market was penetrated, via an order from Eastern Airlines, one of the historic US Big Four airlines.

From this springboard sprang multiple offspring, including the A310 and the single-aisle A320 (and its subsequent A318, 319 and 321 family members), followed by the larger/longer-haul A330 and 340, and more recently the A380, the largest airliner in the world, giving Airbus, now a truly global competitor, a full product line. With the demise of Convair, Lockheed and Douglas, Airbus is now one component of what amounts to a duopoly in large commercial aircraft, with 8,749 aircraft delivered by the end of October 2014, and almost 6,000 aircraft in its order book.

Pluribus, indeed…

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