The Airbus A300 was a product of French/European pride and American requirements for practicality and economy.
The story of the A300 has its roots in the second half of the twentieth century when, in 1966, an American Airlines executive, Frank Kolk, provided mission requirements for a more efficient short/medium haul replacement for the Boeing 727. The requirements called for seating 250-300 passengers in a twin-aisle configuration (the B727 had a single-aisle configuration with seats on the right and left sides of the aircraft and a single pathway in between). The aircraft was required to have two engines as opposed to the 727's three-engines configuration, and be capable of carrying full passenger capacity from high-altitude airports such as Denver in Colorado.
Meanwhile, French President Charles de Gaulle was leading an effort to develop a European airliner that would compete with the Americans that were dominating the aviation market. This effort led to the 1967 signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the British, French and German governments to develop a 250-300 seat aircraft that would fill the niche between the Boeing 707 and Boeing 727 and be very economic to fly and would meet Kolk's U.S. domestic requirements. The 3 European governments decided that 190 million pounds would be enough to finance developing the aircraft.
While Boeing was focusing on the development of the long range B747, the British Hawker Siddeley Aviation, French Sud-Aviation and the German Deutsch Airbus Gmbh joined forces to design the wide-body airplane (wide-body airplanes are generally defined as airplanes with twin aisles and a fuselage diameter of 5 to 6 meters, or 16 to 20 feet, while narrow-body airplanes have a diameter of 3 to 4 meters, which is 10 to 13 feet, and a single aisle).
The development of the aircraft that later became the Airbus A300 was to hit a few snags along the way. Snags that would plant seeds that would eventually blossom into severe problems impacting future Airbus models such as the A380 and others.
Almost from the beginning, both the British and French governments expressed doubts about the aircraft. Doubts that many analysts believe had more roots in the historic rivalry between the two nations than technical reasons, although there were many technical issues to overcome.
The new proposed engine became a problem. The British Rolls-Royce RB207 engine was to be developed for the new aircraft. However, many technical delays plagued the development and Rolls-Royce decided to focus its efforts on developing an engine for Lockheed's L1011 instead. In December of 1968, Sud-Aviation and Hawker Siddeley proposed a revised configuration, the 250 seat Airbus A250 which would not require a new engine, thus reducing development costs.
The Airbus 250 was later renamed the Airbus A300B. To attract US customers, the A300B was to use the General Electric CF6-50 engine. This upset the British government and led to the UK's withdrawal form the venture. Hawker Siddeley stayed on as a contractor developing the highly successful wings that would later result in impressive performances for different future Airbus aircrafts.
The proposal of the CFM6-50 was pivotal in getting the A300 off the ground. Contrast this to the current military Airbus A400M which, more than 40 years later, was plagued by a similar problem. This time, the insistence on using a European-developed engine has caused schedule delays. As of this writing, the A400M is still behind schedule and has not been able to move to production.
The venture became official in 1970 with the setting up of Airbus Industrie following an agreement between the French Aerospatiale and German Deutche Aerospace (DASA). The Dutch Fokker VFM joined in 1970 and, in 1971, CASA of Spain joined the team. The UK came back to the consortium through British Aerospace joining Airbus Industrie.
The A300 was the first airliner to use the concept of complete aircraft sections being manufactured all over Europe by consortium partners and then airlifted to the final assembly line at Toulouse. This concept is known as just-in-time manufacturing and was originally devised as a way to share work among Airbus partners without the expense of multiple assembly lines. This proved to be a more flexible approach reducing the cost of building the airplane at one site. More than thirty years later, Boeing decided to use the same approach in manufacturing the Boeing 787 dreamliner.
The A300 was innovative using some technology derived from the Concorde, responded to customer needs and was crucial in cementing European cooperation in aviation. The first prototype (A300B1) made its maiden flight in October 1972 and the second in February 1973. Entry into service was on May 30, 1974 with Air France (A300B2).
The A300 had a 222-inch diameter fuselage for 8-abreast passenger seating. It was capable of hosting 250 passengers in three classes, 266 in a 2-class configuration and 330 passengers in a one-class configuration.
The length of the aircraft was 177.42 feet with a wingspan of 147.08 ft and a height of 54.25 ft. It supported a maximum payload of 87,930 lb (39,885 kg), a cruise speed of 555 mph at 25,000 ft and 545 mph at 31,000 ft.
Among the many industry firsts introduced by the A300 were wind shear protection, advanced autopilots capable of flying the aircraft from climb-out to landing, electronically controlled braking system, total automation of the flight engineer's functions thus reducing the flight-deck crew from 3 to 2. Also among the firsts is the use of wingtip fences for better aerodynamics.
Despite the fact that the A300 was a very advanced aircraft, sales were very weak. At one point, Airbus had 16 A300s completed but sitting on the tarmac unsold. Airbus decided to develop the A300B4, a version of the A300 capable of carrying up to 270 passengers and had a range of 4,825 km and later 5,800 km. The initial A300B2 had a range of 2,970 km.
Eastern Airlines was interested in the new version and initially leased 4 aircrafts in 1977 as an in-service trial. Frank Borman, then CEO of Eastern, was impressed with the 30% reduced fuel consumption (compared to Eastern's L1011 Tristars) and ordered 25 airplanes with options for 9 more. This was Airbus's break into the North American market where Boeing ruled. This was followed by an order from Pan Am. Soon, orders were coming in and sales took off. The efficiency of the airplane and its 98.5% availability (bigger than any other aircraft in its category) attracted big-name customers such as Singapore Airlines, SAS, Garuda Indonesia, Iberia, Lufthansa in addition to Air France.
In 1980, Airbus announced the creation of the A300-600 (actually A300B4-600), providing 2 additional rows of seating and a capacity of up to 285 passengers. The new version provided upgraded engines, more advanced materials and a longer range. The first airline to fly the new -600 aircraft was Saudia. A longer version was developed, the 600R, with a maiden flight in 1987. The -600R had additional fuel tanks. American Airlines was the first to order the A300-600R followed by Thai, Korean, Lufthansa and Saudia.
In the years that followed, Airbus delivered more than 560 airplanes to 108 airlines around the world.
The A300 was Airbus's introduction into manufacturing experience and the competitive market of selling aircrafts. It also provided the baseline for the later A330 and A340 aircrafts that are stretched versions of the original A300B4.
The A300 has enjoyed renewed interest in the used-aircraft market for conversion to freighters. The freighter version of the A300 comes in either new or ex-passenger converted A300-600. After the Boeing 747 freighter, the A300 Freighter accounts for most of the World's cargo/freighter fleet.
Today, the largest freight operator of the A300 is FedEx which, as of January 2006, had 95 A300/A310 aircrafts. The A310 is a shrunk version of the A300.
In March 2006 Airbus announced the closure of the A300/A310 line. On April 18, 2007, the final production A300 made its initial flight. It was a freighter version (A310F) that was delivered to FedEx on July 12, 2007.
For airlines that are still flying the A300, Airbus announced a support package that will keep the aircraft flying commercially until the year 2025 at the earliest.