Joined by the national companies Airbus Spain and Airbus UK in the late 1970s, Airbus began to design, develop and manufacture modular components for the well-known A300, A320, A330 and A340 series of aircraft.

The separately constructed elements were shipped to the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse for final assembly.

Airbus first broke the grip of the North American aerospace industry by introducing aircraft such as the A320 in 1988, an innovative two-engine, twin-aisle short-range aircraft.

More recently, it has begun to pursue the long-range market with its four-engine A380 Airbus, the world’s largest commercial passenger aircraft. The A380 presents a direct challenge to Boeing’s long-haul fleet including the thirty-eight year old 747.

The A380 Airbus double-deck aircraft has a recommended three-class passenger capacity of 525 seats with certification for an unprecedented 850 passengers in a dense single-class configuration on both decks.

The aircraft’s first flight took place in April 2005 at Blagnac Airport, near the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France. Singapore Airlines took delivery of their first A380 in October 2007.

The A380 Airbus project began in the early 1990s as international aviation forecasts for 2023 projected that close to five million seats would be required to keep pace with 21st century consumer demand. If a Very Large Commercial Transport (VLCT) aircraft could be developed, the aerospace industry postulated, at least fifteen per cent of this projected customer demand could be captured by a single high-efficiency aircraft.

Airbus began to commit itself to the VLCT proposal. But what would such an aircraft look like? Should the aircraft’s cross-section take a vertically aligned oval form (like the Boeing 747), a horizontally aligned oval or the familiar circular section found throughout the Airbus fleet?

In 1993, during the early stages of the project, an Airbus executive confessed to the International Herald Tribune: “We don’t know how big it would be, what it would look like or how far it would fly.”

By 1996, Airbus had decided to accelerate their work on their high-capacity passenger aircraft project with a design-development budget of US$14 billion. Jürgen Thomas, former engineer at Daimler-Benz Aerospace and senior executive at Airbus, directed the A380 project. In aviation circles, Jürgen Thomas is considered the ‘father’ of the Airbus 380.

The ecological ‘wing print’ of this new aircraft was a key issue in design development. The environmental concerns associated with civil aviation are centred on fuel consumption, noise pollution and exhaust emissions.

Jürgen Thomas points out that since the thirsty jet aircraft of the 1950s such as the Boeing 707 and the De Havilland Comet, the aircraft fuel ‘burn per seat’ has fallen by seventy per cent. The fuel-efficient A380 now holds the world record for low fuel consumption.

The pollutants common to earlier aircraft such as soot, smoke, unconsumed hydrocarbon fuel and carbon monoxide have been largely eliminated. Similar improvements have been registered for acoustical pollution, with a reduction in the order of twenty decibels in lateral noise levels with second-generation Rolls Royce Trent 900 series engines.

Aviation journalists witnessing the A380’s first test flight at Blagnac Airport in 2005 were taken by surprise when the aircraft glided quietly overhead with its wing flaps fully extended.

In the cabins, the designated first-class locations on the upper deck are said to be very quiet. A Sunday Times journalist in economy class recently compared the A380 take-off to the sensation of being on an intercity train leaving a station: “silent, gentle, almost imperceptible”.

The A380’s interiors and access ways are more passenger-focused than any other long-haul passenger aircraft. “The key difference is that the aircraft layout stretches over two decks,” commented Jacques Pi-errejean, one of the many designers working on A380 interiors internationally. The interiors include generous stairs between the two decks.

The cabin settings are enhanced by a 21st century lighting system relying on third-generation LED systems that recreate a lighting spectrum reproducing the colours of natural daylight at high and low-intensity settings with a minimal spectral shift.

The LED systems can also be adjusted to reproduce the patterns of the natural lighting cycle from dawn to dusk, ranging from one per cent to 100 per cent brightness.

Weight control is an integral part of aircraft design and Airbus used special development teams to aggressively attack weight reduction. A 1000 kilogram reduction in mass can reward airline operators with as much as ten extra passengers or a significant reduction in fuel consumption. These economies demand extensive use of composite materials.

Aircraft-grade aluminium alloys in the fuselage and wings make up sixty-one per cent of the A380’s net weight, and about twenty-five per cent of the aircraft is now formed from composites. Composite materials are generally described as the combination of two or more elements to create high-performance materials with superior strength, heat-resistance and/or low-weight properties.

The A380 uses a massive carbon fibre–reinforced plastic (CFRP) wing box (a core structural element to fix and hold the wings in their cantilever position), claimed to be the first used in a commercial aircraft.

Airbus engineers saved one and half metric tonnes of weight with this single use of CFRP. To secure this CFRP wing box, Alcoa aluminium developed an exclusive A380 titanium collar lock bolt.

Individually formed CFRP structures are also used in the finbox, rudder, horizontal tailplane and elevators of the A380. Internally, CFRP is also used for the floor joists supporting the upper deck cabin.

Even with an unprecedented use of composite materials, the maximum take-off weight of the A380 is 560 195 kilograms. By comparison, the Boeing 747-400ER family has a maximum take-off weight of 412 770 kilograms.

While conventional aircraft-grade aluminium is used for the external skin, two large sections (480 square metres) of the fore and aft fuselage are clad with a glass fibre–reinforced aluminium laminate (GLARE). Stork Fokker (Netherlands) produces this new family of composite material sheeting formed from multiple aluminium layers plied with layers of fibreglass bonded by adhesives.

While the material is supple, it possesses great strength, crack resistant properties and a fatigue life ten to fifteen times greater than conventional aerospace-grade aluminium. The GLARE ‘sandwich’ is ten per cent lighter than aluminium.

After years of design development, the resulting A380, configured in three classes for 525 plus passengers over two decks, nearly doubles the interior capacity of the Boeing 747-400 aircraft and generously expands the passenger space allotments in all classes.

The United States and European aviation agencies have also certified the aircraft for an economy class capacity of around 850 passengers.

With new materials, innovative assembly techniques and unprecedented double-deck interior spaces, the A380 is reshaping air travel for the aerospace industry as well as the air traveller. In late 2007, some 164 A380s were on order, including forty-seven aircraft for the Dubai-based carrier Emirates.

In his new role as special advisor to the A380 project, Jürgen Thomas said in a 2006 interview: “I am convinced this is the biggest aircraft you should do in a conventional configuration. Something bigger does not make sense from the laws of pure physics.” 

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