Airbus Industrie began as a consortium of European aviation firms to compete with the might of the American firms such as Boeing. It was set up in 1970 following an agreement between Aerospatiale (France) and Deutsche Aerospace (Germany) (joined by CASA of Spain in 1971) to develop the A300, which first flew in 1972. A shorter variant is known as the A310.
The flight deck of the Airbus A320, using digital fly-by-wire for primary flight controls, side-stick controllers in place of the usual control columns, and six large electronic displays.
Intially the success of the consortium was fitful but by 1979 there were 81 aircraft in service. British Aerospace (now BAE SYSTEMS) joined the consortium at the end of 1979, the group being divided with 38 percent stake each for the Germans and French, 20 percent for the British, and the Spanish firm with four percent. All in all it was a fairly loose alliance but that changed in 2000 when the consortium decided to reconfigure as a private commercial company (EADS) to coincide with the development of the new Airbus A380, Superjumbo, which will seat 555 passengers and be the world's largest commercial passenger jet when it enters service in 2006.
Various derivatives of the A300 were launched throughout the 1980s, including the A320 with its innovative fly-by-wire control system. The A318 and A319 are shorter derivatives with some of the latter under construction for the corporate biz-jet market. A stretched version is known as the A321 and is proving competitive with later models of the Boeing 737.
The transcontinental products, the twin-jet A330 and the four-jet A340, have extremely graceful and efficient wings, enhanced by streamlined winglets. These are competing strongly with the larger Boeing products and may partly explain the cessation of airliner production at Lockheed in 1983 and the take-over of McDonnell Douglas by the surviving US builder of long-distance airliners, Boeing, in 1996-1997. The company is particularly proud of its use of fly-by-wire technologies.
Currently there are around 1600 Airbus aircraft in service, with Airbus having around 50 percent of outstanding build orders (1999), although Airbus products are still outnumbered 6 to 1 by in-service Boeings. A turboprop powered military transport aircraft (the A400M) is being developed by several NATO members, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Spain, Turkey, and the UK, as an alternative to the C-130 Hercules.
Airbus employs around 40,000 people in several European countries. Final assembly is carried out in Toulouse, France and Hamburg, Germany, although construction occurs at a number of plants across Europe.
Airbus outsells Boeing in 2003 making it the biggest commercial airliner company in the world.