It is possible to hide an aircraft in plain sight. Ask most people how many four engined aircraft Airbus has produced and the typical answer is two; the A340 and the A380. The correct answer is three, the differences between the A340-200/300 and A340-500/600 are such that they are by any standards different aircraft, despite similar appearances. Compared to the baseline A340-200/300, the A340-500/600 has:
- Newer, larger, heavier, more efficient and more powerful engines from a different supplier.
- A new wing of increased span, sweep and area.
- Enlarged vertical and horizontal tailplanes.
- Modified landing gear with extra wheels.
- Fuselage lengthened by either 4m or 12m.
- Approximately 50% increase in fuel capacity.
- Around a 100T increase in max take-off weight!
Indeed the differences between the baseline A340-200/300 and the A330 are far smaller, yet for those two aircraft Airbus chose to give separate designations.
What’s in a Name?
To understand why Airbus chose to give the A340-500/600 that name, we have to understand what would have been different if they hadn’t, for example if they had called it the “A370”. Exactly one thing would have happened; the baseline A340 would have been declared a failure. Despite a good start, by the time the A340-500/600 was launched the Boeing 777 has arrived and it was clear that the A340-200/300 did not have a long future ahead of itself. By creating the A340-500/600, Airbus gave itself a second chance at success. This was a strange decision because although Airbus changed a lot between the A340-200/300 and the A340-500/600, it kept the four engine configuration at a time when the market was showing a clear preference for twin engined aircraft and ETOPS regulations were being progressively relaxed. So Airbus gambled billions of dollars to create an an aircraft similar to its predecessor, in the hopes that the market would react differently a second time.
Quad-jets are modern flagships, the biggest and most impressive aircraft a manufacturer has and Airbus wanted a successful quad-jet like Boeing’s 747. It was this vanity that drove Airbus to prioritise the A340 over the A330 at program launch, and to try and cover-up the baseline A340-200/300 with a new aircraft, disguised as the A340-500/600, when the former started to struggle. There are no other plausible explanations and there are no other cases of unsuccessful aircraft being targeted with replacement programmes just ten years after the start of production.
These were astonishingly bad decisions in retrospect. In total Airbus sold 246 of the baseline A340-200/300 and just 131 of the larger A340-500/600 aircraft. By comparison the Airbus A330, launched in the background to the A340 in 1987, had quietly built up an order book of nearly 950 by the time A340 production stopped in 2011 and continues to sell well, including the A330neo upgrade and reengining programme started in 2014 that has already sold close to 200 aircraft before the first delivery. What would Airbus be like as a company now if it had concentrated on the A330 from the beginning?