A version of this article appears in the August 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

Contrary to what most public relations firms recommend, Airbus has chosen to downplay the debut of the A320neo (New Engine Option). No official ceremony was staged, unlike the presentation—with Hollywood-style hoopla—for the debut of the A320 in 1987. Of course the A320neo is not an all-new commercial transport, but it does mark the first time that the European manufacturer has secured more than 3,000 firm orders for an aircraft—before it even takes to the air.

Since the initial program’s launch in 1984, 10,504 A320-series twinjets have been sold, and today the backlog is a record 4,372. An increase in the production rate from 42 to 50 or more per month is being pondered.

The A320 saga holds many lessons, including the need for a severe reality check when it comes to market forecasts. 

When the program was greenlighted, the then-consortium’s top executives estimated they could expect to sell up to 800 A320s over 20 years and, based on stable U.S.-dollar/French-franc exchange rates, determined the financial break-even point could be reached with delivery of the 600th aircraft. 

In those days, Airbus’s market share was nearly nonexistent—the A300B/A310 combined production rate was no more than 40-50 aircraft per year. This new European player (Airbus was established in January 1970) was severely hobbled by the absence of a product range; clearly a quick decision was needed to expand its limited offer.

However, the founding partners, France and Germany, disagreed about how to proceed. Germany insisted Airbus should develop a 230-seat, four-engine long-range jet, provisionally dubbed TA11 (TA for Twin Aisle) in an effort to demonstrate Europe’s ability to establish itself in a market dominated by Boeing, Douglas and Lockheed. In Bonn, politicians were convinced an aircraft manufacturer must have a long-range offering to be a major player.

France, on the other hand, favored the 150-seat, short-to-medium-haul A320, despite robust sales of the Boeing 737 and Douglas DC-9 and the Boeing 727 trijet’s excellent reputation. Then came a battle of market forecasts. 

Boeing claimed there would not be sufficient room to accommodate a European player, Airbus responded that its aircraft would demonstrate significantly lower direct operating costs. But could airlines and competitors really believe the Europeans’ assertions in light of the modest results? In 1983, the year before the A320’s launch, Airbus sold no more than eight A300Bs and A310s but had also received cancellations covering eight aircraft. By the end of the year, 24 “white tails” were parked at the Toulouse airport. 

In other words, the Airbus pioneers needed to step up their game in order to convince governments to fund the envisioned A320. The British, who had in the interim joined the consortium, were reluctant. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher feared the U.K. would be heading toward another Concorde-type financial morass; Rolls-Royce did not even offer a candidate to power the new aircraft.

Eventually the decision was made to proceed with the A320 based on new concepts and advanced technology such as electronic flight controls, an electronically protected flight envelope, an upgraded man/machine interface and a choice of two engine types—Snecma/General Electric CFM56 and International Aero Engines V2500. 

Competition included the CFM56-powered 737-300, new DC-9 derivatives and the envisioned Fokker F-XXX. Not surprisingly, sales remained sluggish. Moreover, no agreement with a U.S. industrial partner could be forged and an attempt to take Canada on board failed (de Havilland of Canada was invited to join Airbus as an associated member and produce 10% of the aircraft).

Roger Beteille, Airbus’s then-managing director; outgoing Chief Executive Bernard Lathiere and program manager John Macadam were incredibly optimistic and they proved to be right. However, as U.S. author John Newhouse wrote in The Sporty Game, the French in those days adopted a proprietary stance that took awhile to fade. A year after the program’s launch, Jean Pierson succeeded Lathiere and proclaimed that Airbus would, in the years to come, gradually achieve a 30% share in the commercial transport market—a pronouncement that was greeted with skepticism from many quarters.

The end result speaks for itself and should be lauded.