The A340 Rides Into the Sunset

Iberia Airlines A340-600

This week Airbus announced that it has decided to officially end production of the A340 after a 20 year run. Both the A330 and A340 were launched back in the summer of 1987, at a time when long-range ETOPS was still a new idea. Potential customers with route demands in North America wanted a twin, while Asia-Pacific customers wanted a quad – so the decision was made to do both, using a common wing and production line and using some evolutionary components sourced from the earlier A300/A310 programs.

A340 customers were interested primarily in range – Singapore Airlines insisted that the A340 be able to fly non-stop from Singapore to Paris against strong winter headwinds. At the time, Singapore was operating DC-10s and had a standing order for 20 MD-11s – an order cancelled when the range of the A340 proved superior to the MD-11. The new aircraft also made more sense for some operators than the 747, and was more efficient than the aging 747 classics and DC-10s/L-1011s which at that time made up the bulk of the wide-body fleet.

But as the ETOPS concept proved reliable and first ETOPS-120 and then ETOPS-180 became less radical (indeed, these days Airbus is planning to certify the A350 to 350-minute ETOPS and Boeing is aiming for an eventual ETOPS-330 rating on the 787), the appeal of the quad jet, and certainly of aging trijets, began to wane. That, coupled with serious competition from Boeing’s 777 and the related A330, meant that the A340’s sales began to slow in the late 1990s. Indeed, Singapore Airlines retired the A340-300 from its fleet in 2003.

In 1997, Airbus launched two refined versions of the A340 which offered distinct benefits over the original version – the A340-600, then the longest airliner ever built with a big seating capacity jump and new engines – and the A340-500, a shorter-fuselage -600 with ultra-long-haul range capabilities.

The A340-600, stretched 35 feet from the A340-300, offered 379 seats and plenty of under-deck cargo room, and was designed to replace 747 classics and compete with the 747-400. The A340-500, meanwhile, was designed with an 8,500nm range capacity for about 300 passengers. Unlike the earlier A340s, these new variations swapped the CFM-56 powerplants for Rolls-Royce Trent variations. Customer deliveries of the -600 began in 2002 and the -500 in 2003.

Boeing would counter these two aircraft with the 777-300ER and 777-200LR “Worldliner” aircraft – which were more efficient and ultimately won the sales race. As did the A330, which continues to sell extremely well. But the world’s longest route, Singapore-Newark, is still operated with the A340-500, as are a variety of long-range routes from operators as diverse as TAM, Arik Air, and Emirates. Lufthansa, Iberia, Thai, Etihad, Qatar, Hainan, China Eastern, South African Airways, and Virgin Atlantic all use A340-600s on long-haul routes.

Seen here is the very last A340-600 ever made, EC-LFS (msn: 1122), Iberia’s “Ciudad De Mexico” on final approach at JFK earlier this year. It was delivered on June 25, 2010.

Photographer: Alex Kwanten

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