Airbus is a european plane construction company and is Boeing's main competitor in the civil airliner field. Originally a fairly loose consortium of European companies, it became a single integrated company in january 2001. It is currently owned by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) and BAE Systems, who hold respectively 80% and 20% of the stock.
Cooperation between various European entities dates back as early as the 1920s and there were a number of Franco-German projects after the war. Cooperation began in ernest in the 1960s, with the Franco-German Transall and the Franco-British Concorde.
The project that was to give birth to Airbus was the A300 project. The goal of this project, which was given the green light in 1969, was to create a high capacity twin-jet transport that could compete with similar offerings from American manufacturers. The Airbus Industrie consortium was officially formed in 1970, and was composed of the French Aerospatiale and the German Deutsche Aerospace. They were joined by the Spanish CASA in 1971 and 1979, British Aerospace became a full partner.
The A300B, Airbus's first aircraft and first widebody twin-jet was launched at the Paris air show in 1969. It was rather overshadowed by Concorde, which made its first test flight in March 1969 and its first supersonic flight in October 1969. In 1972, the A300 made its first flight and in 1974 the Airbus A300B2 became the first Airbus to enter service.
A difficult start
By the end of 1975, Airbus had contracts for 55 aircraft. The sales were mostly to European state-owned carriers as other markets, in particular the US market, were hesitant to place orders. After this encouraging start Airbus failed to make another sale for 16 months. The turning point was when US company Eastern Airlines leased 4 A300B4s. This move convinced other carriers to place orders too. By 1979 Airbus had 256 orders from 32 customers and 81 aircraft in service. From there Airbus was able to consolidate its position and expand its range of aircraft.
Airbus has delivered over 200 A330/A340s and has
contracts for over 400 more (enough for over 4 years work). The in-service Airbus fleet numbers over 2700 aircraft and the company claims to have cornered 50% of all orders for airliners over 100 seats and the company now employs around 45000 people. However Boeing still outnumbers Airbus in terms of aircraft in service by almost 6 to 1. It is hoped that the incorporation of Airbus will help reverse this as commercial operations had previously been hampered by the loose relationship of the partners. The A380, Airbus's 555 seat superjumbo programme (previously known as the A3XX) will almost certainly have a decisive role to play.
An innovative company
Airbus hasn't just stuck to trying to catch up with Boeing. Its aircraft have largely been innovative and Airbus has a number of industry firsts.
The A310 (launched in 1978, first flight in 1982) was the first aircraft whose main cockpit was equipped with 6 CRTs, instead of old style dials. The A320 (launched in 1984, first flight in 1987, entered service in 1988) was the first commercial aircraft to use "fly-by-wire" controls. One of the first all new designs in several decades, it is one of Airbus's best selling aircraft. The use of fly-by-wire allowed lower development costs on following designs, including the companies first long range aircraft, the A340 (launched in 1987, first flight 1981, entered service in 1993). Again, the A340 is the first entirely new design of its type in many years. Although all this automation seems like a good idea, many pilots hate it, partly because they feel they are progressively being made obsolete, partly because they believe the software frequently behaves in illogical ways (especially in earlier designs), limiting the actions of the pilot to what the plane believes is sensible. This has been a contributing factor in several accidents. (Thanks to littlerubberfeet for pointing this out)
All in all, even if Airbus has been dogged with stories of over generous European subsidies, I think Airbus has done jolly well the achieve the position it currently has in only 30 years, despite fierce competition from other manufacturers, and Boeing in particular.