The Airbus A320 – including its three resized versions – is the second-most produced commercial jet airliner ever, with only the Boeing 737 further out in front. In all, nearly 7,000 examples of all variants have been manufactured to date and delivery still lies ahead for several thousand more. Current production levels see about 40 A320 family members built each month.
Introduced in 1988, the Airbus A320 was the world’s first commercial aircraft design to incorporate a fly-by-wire control system and also premiered several other innovations. Now in service for well over 25 years, it continues to thrive in both its original and new-generation ‘neo’ forms and is a common sight at airports all over the world.
Airbus A320 Origins
By the early 1980s, European aircraft manufacturer Airbus had more than established itself with its A300 airliner. Its subsequent A310, while not as successful, would nonetheless enter widespread service. The next Airbus’ design represented a complete breakaway from the wide-bodied A300/A310 template. Building on late-1970s JET (Jet European Transport) studies, Airbus launched its A320 programme on 2 March 1984. Rapidly, A320 orders flew in, launch customer Air France signing-on for 50 examples and Northwest Airlines, double that figure.
The prototype A320 – Airbus’ first narrow-bodied airliner - was rolled-out in Toulouse on 14 February 1987 before an audience that included the Prince and Princess of Wales and then-French Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac. Eight days later, on 22 February, the first A320 flight took place. By then, Airbus A320 orders stood at 439. Three hours, 23 minutes long, that first flight kick-started the A320’s flight trials programme that would ultimately involve some 500 more flights, during which the test airframes spent a combined 1,200 hours airborne.
On 26 March 1988, the first A320 delivery to Air France took place. In the French flagship carrier’s hands, commercial A320 operations got underway on 18 April that year.
Airbus A320 Features
The Airbus A320 features a fly-by-wire control system – an outright commercial airliner first (fly-by-wire had previously only formed part of military aircraft). Prior to the A320, an airliner’s flight controls and flight control surfaces were manually linked. Instead of this arrangement, the A320’s flight controls actually transmit electronic signals, via a computer, to actuators which operate the flight control surfaces. Such use of electrical wiring, as opposed to cables, acts to reduce weight but the fly-by-wire system is a fundamentally safety-geared feature since it’s designed to stop A320 pilots from ever being able to take the aircraft outside its flight envelope.
In Airbus’ own words, the A320’s fly-by-wire system supplies ‘total flight envelope and airframe structural protection for improved safety and reduced pilot workload, along improved flight smoothness and stability, and fewer mechanical parts.’ A key part of the A320’s fly-by-wire technology, a fighter-type side-stick control, was another commercial airliner first and, so too, the aircraft’s ‘glass cockpit’, centralizing principal flight data to the pilots’ absolute benefit.
The A320 also pioneered the use of composite materials in narrow-bodied airliner design. These composites are most extensively found in the aircraft’s tail area. The A320’s fin and most of its fuselage are made in Germany, while its forward fuselage and engine pylons are built in France. Two other countries are also involved in the A320 main components manufacturing process. These are the UK and Spain, where its wings and tail plane sections, respectively, are made. All A320 parts come together for final assembly at one of three locations: Tianjin (China), Hamburg or Toulouse. A network of lorries, roll-on/roll-off vessels, container ships and Airbus’ specialised A300-600ST Beluga outsized cargo transport aircraft is used to get them there.
Airbus A320 Versions
Including the A320 itself, there are four main Airbus A320 versions. First to emerge was the A321 – an A320 with a 146 foot, 0 inch (44.51 metre)-long fuselage and the capacity to seat 185 passengers in a standard configuration. The A321 programme was launched on 24 November 1988. By that point, there were 183 orders for the aircraft in place. The A320’s first flight was on 11 March 1993. Launch customer Lufthansa subsequently got its first example on 27 January 1994.
The downsized A319 followed the A321. 111 feet, 0 inches (33.84 metres) long, it typically accommodates 124 passengers. The A319 was rolled-out on 24 August 1995 and had its first flight the very next day. Swissair, its launch customer, took delivery of its first A319 on 25 April 1996. Finally came the smallest A320 version – the A318. 103 feet, two inches (33.11 metres) in length, the A318 first flew on 22 July 2002 and joined Frontier Airlines’ fleet exactly one year later. Typical passenger capacity for this Airbus model is 107.
While these four A320 versions all have differing fuselage lengths, their wing span remains a constant width. Only three airlines – British Airways, Air France and Avianca – operate the A318, A319, A320 and A321.
New Engine Option Models
In December 2010, Airbus announced the next generation of Airbus A320 models – the ‘neo’ (new engine option) range. More efficient engines, structural improvements and ‘Sharklets’ (winglets) combine with other features to reduce fuel consumption levels by a maximum of 15 per cent, Airbus says. Currently, some 4,500 A320 family neo models are on order – making this the most popular airliner range in history.
25 January 2016 saw the A320neo enter commercial service with Lufthansa. The German carrier alone has 70 more A320neos – plus 45 A321neos – due to be delivered. It and hosts of other airlines are now set to keep Airbus’ pioneering twin-engined narrow-bodied design serving well into the future.
Key Facts: Airbus A320
Short-to-medium range airliner
123 ft 3 in (37.57 m)
111 ft 11 in (34.1 m)
Two CFM International CFM56s producing up to 27,000 pounds thrust each
537 mph (871 km/h)
3,600 miles (5,700 km)
39,000 ft (12,000 m)
Two (pilot, co-pilot)
22 February 1987
Airbus A320 sunset image copyright Fedor Leukhin – courtesy Wikimedia Commons easyJet Airbus A320 image copyright Adrian Pingstone – courtesy Wikimedia Commons Airbus A320 airport image copyright ‘d-s-n’ – courtesy FreeImages.com Alitalia Airbus A320 copyright Alf van Beem – courtesy Wikimedia Commons Airbus A320neo image copyright Airbus SAS 2014 – photo by master films / A. Doumenjou
Airbus A320 construction footage copyright/courtesy Airbus