Boeing 737 entered service in 1968 with Lufthansa and was an instant hit. Its main competitor was McDonnell Douglas DC-9, followed by its MD-80/MD-90 but there were signs that Europe also wanted its own major aircraft. After a jointure between some of the largest aircraft manufacturers in Europe, Airbus was formed and started to design an aircraft that could be a serious competitor for the 737 and DC-9. Its initial name was JET – Joint European Transport and it was a program established by British Aerospace, Aerospatiale, Dornier, and Fokker. The plane was very competitive with between 133 and 180 seats and a top speed of Mach 0.84 (faster than the 737). Due to uncertainty, Airbus decided to make not only one but three airplanes: A319, A320, and A321. The single-aisle program created divisions within Airbus about whether to design a shorter-range twinjet rather than a longer-range quad jet wanted by the West Germans, particularly by Lufthansa.
The A320 would carry 150 passengers over 5,280 or 3,440km (2,850 or 1,860nmi) using fuel from wing tanks only. Airbus considered a fuselage diameter of “the Boeing 707 and 727, or something better” and settled on a wider cross-section with a 3.7m (12ft and 2in) internal width, compared to Boeing’s 3.45m (11ft and 4in). Although heavier, this allowed it to compete more effectively with the 737. The A320 wing went through several design stages, eventually measuring 33.91m (111ft and 3in).
The UK, France, and West Germany wanted responsibility over the final assembly and its associated work, known as “work-share arguments”. The Germans requested an increased work-share of 40%, while the British wanted the major responsibilities to be swapped around to give partners production and research and development experience. After financial talks and production-related negotiations, the program was launched on March 2nd 1984.
In 1973, Airbus wanted to do a marketing stunt in order to present its aircraft to the American market. The A300 took off from Toulouse in September 1973 for Dakar in West Africa and then flew across the Atlantic to Sao Paulo, Brazil. It went on to Florida, where it touched down on North American soil for the first time, and then to Mexico City and Chicago. Felix Kracht recalled: “The whole world thought we were mad because we arranged it without any support from abroad. But the trip went without a hitch and left a very good impression. It helped us a great deal.” In fact, there was one small incident: a bird-strike caused minor damage to one of the engines, which had to be replaced in Chicago. But even then, the speed and ease of the replacement operation served to impress watching U.S. airlines that Airbus product support was up to the mark. Airbus A300 was 20% more efficient than any of its competitors per trip and it became necessary as the oil crisis began to bite and prices soared.
Going back to the A320, after rigorous testing, this amazing piece of engineering was delivered to Air France and began commercial service with a flight between Paris and Berlin via Düsseldorf. The first derivative of the A320 was the A321, also known as stretched A320, and was launched on the 24th of November 1988. There is also a smaller A320, known as shrunk A320 – A319. The new model was offered on the 22nd of May 1992, but another smaller version was in the plan and it was later called A318.
There were some improvements over the years such as winglets and aerodynamic refinements, but the most important feature it was the fact that this aircraft was the first airliner with digital fly-by-wire.
Constantly since 2003, A320 has received more orders and more aircraft have been delivered compared with the Boeing 737. Moreover, after the grounding of the B737 Max, Airbus gained an important advantage with 446 deliveries in 2020 versus the 43 Boeings 737 in the same year.
From a top made by CNN, it can be observed that Airbus managed to deliver 10176 airplanes, since the first delivery in 1986, by January 2022 while Boeing delivered 10877 Boeings 737. The number of orders in 2019 was almost the same: 15136 for 737 and 15157 for A320, in total. This shows how Airbus managed to prove itself as a serious competitor to its American rival.
To conclude, Airbus provided a very performant aircraft that became very popular whilst Boeing’s 737 started to vanish after twenty years due to the technological advantages of Airbus and Boeing’s own problems. While some airlines like Ryanair prefer to keep the Boeing 737 as their only aircraft, others like Wizz Air and Easy Jet prefer the Airbus. Both are great aircraft but it is very interesting to observe how the number of deliveries surged for the A320 and manage to catch and surpass the Boeing. The title for the highest number of orders and deliveries went back and forth between these two over the years, and this competition will get more intense and fascinating to keep an eye on in the future.