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Building the Backbone: Toulouse

Elements of the Beluga XL core airframe are rolled out to Airbus’ L34 hangar for the start of integration (Photo/Caption: Airbus)

Welcome to the Building the Backbone series. In this short series, AirlineGeeks staff writers will go in depth in the history of cities that have helped create the backbone for aircraft building and have become icons for their advancements in aviation. The series will be brought to you by people who have seen first hand how aviation has helped the local area. 

Toulouse, France is considered the gateway to the European aviation industry with manufacturers Airbus and ATR having a large presence at the city’s Blagnac International Airport. The huge presence of Airbus attracts many people to the city every year.

ATR was founded in 1981 and is 50-50 split-owned by Airbus Group and Leonardo, an Italian global high-tech company. Many of ATR’s operations at the airport are interconnected with Airbus, the mainstream manufacturer. The ATR 42 went into testing halfway through August 1984 after being introduced in 1981 and was put into commercial service in December 1985.

The primary users of the ATR 42 aircraft are FedEx Feeder, Aeromar, First Air, and Air France’s subsidiary HOP!. Over 450 of the aircraft have been delivered to customers worldwide. The initial version of the ATR 42 was in production until around 1996 before the ATR 42-320 was introduced, which also ended production at the end of 1996.

The next variant of the ATR 42 was the ATR 42-500 variant in July 1995. The ATR 42-600 variant was announced in 2007 and deliveries started in 2012 and is still being built and sold.

Moving onto the ATR’s bigger brother, the ATR 72, which was announced in 1986 and entered commercial service in October 1989, one year after flight testing had commenced with Finnair becoming the launch customer.

In the same year, the ATR 72-201 and 202 variants were also developed due to additional demand from ATR’s customers. 1992 saw the ATR 72-210, ATR 72-211, and ATR 72-212 variants all being introduced with improved engine performances in hot and high-altitude conditions. The 2000s saw the ATR 72-500 and -600 variants being created.

The ATR 72-600 variant was the aircraft that the company was more focused on due to the expansion of capacity from 74 to 78 seats in December 2015. The primary users of the aircraft consist of Wings Air, Azul Linhas Aereas, and Mount Cook Airline. The ATR 72 was the more popular out of the two aircraft with over 900 delivered and in service.

During the 1980s, ATR also considered creating an ATR-82 variant. The concept essentially became the ATR72-600 due to it having the same seating capacity. Research began into that aircraft type with the option to use Allison AE2100 turboprops. Due to the successes of the ATR 42 and the ATR 72, the program was scrapped in early 1996.

Moving onto Airbus, their history began in the late 1960s when there was a new demand required for aircraft sitting over 120 passengers for ultra-short flights after Hawker Siddeley introduced their Armstrong Whitworth AW 660 Argosy aircraft.

Furthermore, the development of new aircraft in Europe was necessary as due competition in America from aircraft manufacturers like Boeing were building the 727, which could carry between 149 and 189 passengers and travel 2,700 miles.

July 1967 saw the United Kingdom, West Germany, and France join together to develop a new aircraft. Once advertised in 1968, turbulent times put all three governments under pressure as a Memorandum of Understanding stated that they were to hit 75 orders by July of that year. The French Government considered the withdrawal of the project over high funding costs of the Airbus A300, Concorde, and Dassault Mercure all being developed around the same time. They decided to

The French Government considered the withdrawal of the project over high funding costs of the Airbus A300, Concorde, and Dassault Mercure all being developed around the same time. They decided to continue funding the project but Britain pulled out of the agreement in April 1969. West Germany replaced the Brits’ share in the agreement and increased their investment to 50%.

December 1970 saw a structural change within Airbus as they became “Airbus Industrie” under the Economic Interest Group agreement between France, West Germany, and the UK that originated in 1967. The initial shareholders were French company Aerospatiale and the West German company Deutsche Airbus, who each owned 50% of the business.

After further investments by companies such as CASA, the agreed governments and companies began work on the development of the Airbus A300. The initial design of the aircraft wanted it to be a 320 seat twin-engine airliner. However, due to lukewarm support by investors and the public, they submitted the proposal for the Airbus A250, which later became the Airbus A300B: a 250-seat airliner.

Because of this, it reduced Airbus’ costs and was able to streamline their efficiency towards better engines, such as the Rolls Royce RB211s instead of the RB207s, which were known for consistent failures. The Airbus A300 conducted its maiden flight in 1972 and the first production model, the Airbus A300B2 went into commercial service in 1974. Orders for the aircraft picked up after the popularity of Concorde stabilized. 1979 saw Airbus receive 256 orders for the A300 and demand respectively fell due to the launch of the A310 in 1983.

1987 was the year Airbus launched the A320, which turned the aircraft manufacturer into a key player in the aerospace market. Before the aircraft first flew, the manufacturer received over 400 orders, compared to the A300 only receiving 15 in 1972.

Airbus expanded their commercial aircraft portfolio with the widebody aircraft in 1990. The Airbus A340 was introduced into commercial service in March 1993 with launch customer Lufthansa and accumulated over 370 orders altogether. The Airbus A330 was launched commercially in January 1994 with Air Inter as the launch customer.

In the late 1980s, Airbus began working, in secret, on a development of what would be an ultra-high-capacity airliner, known as the Airbus A380. This new aircraft was to compete with the Boeing 747-400. June 1994 saw the development of the aircraft enhance to the point of it becoming the A3XX and beginning to refine the design of the double-decker aircraft to create a 15 to 20 percent reduction in operating costs when comparing it to the Boeing 747.

The double-decker layout itself aimed to provide more passenger-based volume in comparison to single-deck designs. Five of the new “super-jumbos” were built and showcased at a ceremony in Toulouse in January 2005. The maiden flight took place in April of the same year. December 2005 concluded their successful year of the A380 with it reaching its maximum design speed of Mach 0.96.

Recent developments from Airbus over the past four years have been from the Airbus A350XWB. The A350-900’s first flight was conducted on June 14, 2013, which was the result of three years of work starting in 2010 and $11 billion in total development costs. Two years after that, Qatar Airways received the first Airbus A350-900 on Jan. 15, 2015. The new A350XWB was built to compete with the Boeing 767, 787, and 777.

For the A350-900, there will be a ULR (Ultra Long Range) variant, which Singapore Airlines will utilize to launch flights between Singapore and New York, a flight previously operated on their Airbus A340-500.

In total, over 26,000 people work at the Toulouse factories at Airbus and ATR specializing in many different departments that bring together the construction of each individual aircraft that is ordered by many customers across the globe.

With Airbus’ backlog for aircraft being at over 17,000 alone as of March 2017, employment in the city will be strongly supported. The short-haul market that ATR thrives in doesn’t appear to be ending anytime soon either. There are over 1,700 ATR aircraft currently operational with more on order into continents such as Asia and North America, two emerging continents with Asia growing in particular.

ATR forecasts that between 2016-2035, there will be demand for 2,800 aircraft. This highlights the strength of the two firms and what employment opportunities they have secured for the next 20 years, which will enhance the local and national economies further.

Overall, such developments made by Airbus over the past four to five decades have enhanced Toulouse’s overall position in the aerospace industry as a big hitter in the market. Evidence that substantiates this view is through their consistency in being able to compete with manufacturers such as Boeing since the 1970s when the A300B was first released up to the current day of the Airbus A350-1000 being launched into commercial service in mid-2017 as well as ATR’s development into the turboprop industry and becoming a key competitor to that of Bombardier.

Editor’s Note: Read the previously published ‘Building the Backbone’ series installment which takes a look at Wichita, Kan.

James Field
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  • James Field

    James is a passionate AvGeek who has been actively spotting for years. James has been an Aviation Enthusiast for 7 years and has a fond likening to Concorde! James hopes to grow in the aviation industry with journalism being his primary focus.

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