The A340

Lufthansa Airbus A340-600(Flickr)

I got asked what I thought of the A340 last week by a reader of FlyingColors and decided to give some thought to that subject and write a post.

The truth is, the A340 was probably the first Airbus aircraft that I really liked visually.   I liked the slender appearance of the widebody fuselage and I liked the four engines and how they were hung on the wing in a proportion that just seemed a bit sexier than other 4 engine aircraft. 

I liked Airbus’ approach to the A340/A330, too.  I’ve always been fond of the parts bin approach to creating value for a customer and the A330/A340 development was certainly that. 

A fuselage that got borrowed from its first twin-aisle aircraft and CFM engines that were derived from the A320 aircraft.  Need a medium range hauler?  Use our A330.   Need a long range widebody?  Try our A340.   Going trans-Atlantic?  Use our A330 and if you’ve got trans-Pacific routes, we have this lovely 4 engine aircraft for you. 

And you got to have pilots that could fly both. 

It was a beautiful approach and a real answer to what was needed at the time.   It was way better than McDonnell Douglas’s offering in the MD-11 and Boeing really didn’t have an aircraft that even fit the needs at all. 

ETOPS was changing the game at the same time, however.  So was engine development.

The MD-11 was a bit flawed in that it really needed a truly new wing and better engines to achieve its mission.  But the ever frugal derivative player, McDonnell Douglas, played things just a bit too frugal.

The 747 was simply a different class of aircraft.  The 767 was too small and too short ranged to fit the gap.

Airbus did a great job with those aircraft in offering a sweet spot solution for both capacity and range and then made a strong business case for both of them by making them as common as possible.  You cannot blame any airline who went that route.  It was, in the context of the times, the perfect solution.

What we didn’t really count on was engine manufacturers being willing to truly make game changer engines and ETOPS going far past anything anyone could envision.  The 777 was born and it was an even bigger game changer.  First an aircraft that solved the A330 problem just a little bit better.  Not fantastically better but it offered just a touch more capacity and bit more cargo capacity and it did it with engines that were more revolution than evolution.

The A330 has survived because of its improved derivatives and any airline using them makes great money.

The A340 got hampered by a few things.  It needed a bit better wing  and better engines (and finally got both in the A340-500/600).  The CFM engines were a great choice going in but the Rolls Royce Trents were the answer to a question that got asked a bit too late.

Airbus bet on 4 engines being preferred for long haul, trans-oceanic routes and given the dominance of the 747 in that market, it wasn’t a bad bet.   Their mistake was in underestimating Boeing’s ability to look forward.  Boeing saw the possibilities in ETOPS and extra high by-pass engines that were more reliable than anyone could have conceived of a generation earlier.  And it should have given its customer base at the time.

Airbus was hampered by a bit of McD disease and by multi-government ownership at the time.  It didn’t have enough capital to go “all in” on designs and knew it had to make its business case on flexibility which meant derivatives.  In fact, it often only got capital for new investment if that investment benefitted its owners in the form of jobs programs for their citizens.

While thinking about this post, it occured to me that Airbus even produced a 747-SP.  The A340-500 derivative.  It could fly fantastic distances but without enough passengers to make it cost effective.   Then the 777-200LR came along and was capable of doing *that* mission better and cheaper.

The 777-200ER and 777-300ER killed the A340 in all forms (And EADS CFO just admitted it in the press).  It could haul more passengers and cargo for the same or longer distances for less money.  It was that simple.  Boeing made the business case on trip costs and won. 

Even if hindsight is 20/20, you can’t say that Airbus made a mistake with the A340.  The A340 killed the MD-11 and exposed the weaknesses of owning 747s.  It did its job very well but it arrived just a little bit too late to enjoy its success for very long.  Timing is everything.

I would criticize Airbus for the A380.  Yes, it has made a few airlines some good money.  It also ignores the model(s) for long haul travel over the broad spectrum in favor of trunk routes.  It will never enjoy the numbers or prevalence of the 747.  On the other hand, neither will the 747-8i. 

I’m not sure the A350 is the answer either.  I don’t think it fits long, thin routes as well as the 787 and its planned derivatives.  I don’t think it fits the long, large capacity routes quite as well as the 777 either.  Its smallest derivative is an A330 replacement at best and I question whether or not it will ever get built.  Its largest derivative so far doesn’t respond to the 777-300 as a game changer either.  They are free to prove me wrong.

It’s not that I think the A350 won’t sell.  It will.  But I think it’s destined to be a player among a fairly small core group of airlines.  Much as the A380 is and will be.  Boeing took a page from the Airbus playbook and built the 787 to fit a nice, broad piece of medium and long haul routes and positioned itself to answer the largest A350 with a next gen 777 or next gen new build large capacity, widebody aircraft.

Boeing one ups Airbus over the next 20 years with its product line up and does it in a way that has the gaps covered in distance, capacity and service. 

With all of that said, I still think the A340 is one hell of an elegant and pretty airliner.  It lends itself to the great airliner liveries of the world.  Just look at these:

(All images from Flickr under their Creative Commons License)

B-HXJ

 

Etihad

EC-GLE "Concepción Arenal"

G-VGAS

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2 Responses to “The A340”

  1. Thank you for your thoughts, as always! I’m not much of an Airbus fan either but I do think the A330 is one of the most beautiful aircraft ever,* with the 346 up there on the list. Seeing the A346 up close was truly amazing – we don’t get those in the Bay Area. With experience flying LSA (mostly Aeronca Champs), the stick and rudder vs. yoke controls in a jetliner is pretty exciting.

    Obviously I’m more aircraft-oriented than business-oriented, but I do agree the timing of the 330/340 was unfortunate given the potential. Quite an interesting comparison between the A345 and the SP.

    Thanks again!

    * http://www.airliners.net/photo/Air-Berlin-(LTU/Airbus-A330-223/1475880/L/&sid=6fcce4d8456f3fe9a687c0e15547375c

  2. For pure viewing enjoyment, it’s hard to find fault with either the A330 or A340. My first, second and third impressions of both was that they looked like you would imagine a great airliner should: Like a graceful bird.

    Sometimes the “business” side of things tends to fuzz up the sheer enjoyment of plane spotting. The photo you link is a great example of just how attractive they are in the sky.

    If you time things just right, you can see a Lufthansa A340 come into DFW. And if you are really lucky, you can see one take off. The takeoffs speak to just how lumbering the A340-300 can be. You find yourself *willing* the aircraft to stay aloft because surely something going to slow with wings straining so much needs your help. The only thing that ever looked slower was a fully loaded and fueled BA 747-400 I saw there. And, yet, by contrast, the KLM A330′s appear to fairly “hop” into the sky.

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