Behold! A teeny, tiny little commercial airliner, but one that forms the basis of many major operations, and was something of a hit in the USA as well. Yep, it’s the plucky Airbus A318, a small but dependable little plane that has a few more tricks up its sleeve than one may choose to believe.
The Airbus A320 programme came to a head on February 22nd, 1987, with the first flight of the original Airbus A320. The unexpected success of this aircraft was a clear sign to Airbus that more had to be accomplished with this winning design, and thus, in similar fashion to the Boeing 737, an entire series of aircraft was considered, starting with the stretched A321 in 1994, and the shorter A319 in 1996. The A320 family found a unique selling point by pioneering the use of digital fly-by-wire flight control systems, as well as side stick controls, in commercial aircraft.
The A318 came from studies between Aviation Industries of China (AVIC), Singapore Technologies Aerospace, Alenia and Airbus on a 95- to 125-seat aircraft project. The programme was called the AE31X, and covered the 95-seat AE316 and 115- to 125-seat AE317. The former was to have an overall length of 102ft 8inches, while the AE317 would be longer by 10ft 6in. The engines would be supplied from two BMW Rolls-Royce BR715s, CFM56-9s, or Pratt & Whitney PW6000s; with a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 53.3 tonnes for the smaller version and 58 tonnes for the AE317. Range was settled at 2,800nmi
and 3,100nmi for the high gross weight versions of both variants. Costing $2 billion to develop, aircraft production was to take place in China.
The aircraft was first named A319M5 in as early as March 1995, as an A319 derivative with fuselage shortening of 2ft 7in ahead of the wing and 5ft 3in behind. The final proposal was for an aircraft seating 107 passengers in a two-class layout with a range of 1,810nmi. The aircraft’s production took advantage of laser welding, eliminating the necessity for heavy rivets and bolts. Overall, the A318 is over six metres shorter and around 3 tons lighter than the A320. For commonality, the A318 shares a near identical flight deck with the rest of the A320 family, therefore pilots who are trained on the other variants may fly the A318 with no further certification.
The A318 comes with a variety of different maximum take-off weights (MTOW) ranging from a 59 ton, 1,480nmi base model to a 68 ton, 3,200nmi version. The lower MTOW enables it to operate regional routes economically while sacrificing range and the higher MTOW allows it to complement other members of the A320 family on marginal routes. The lighter weight of the A318 gives it an operating range 10% greater than the A320, allowing it to serve some routes that the A320 would be unable to: London – New York, Perth–Auckland and Singapore–Tokyo, for instance. Its main use for airlines, however, is on short, low-density hops between medium-sized cities.
However, the A318 has sadly suffered in terms of design, falling essentially into a gap in the market. Following 9/11, there was a slump in demand for new aircraft, followed by issues involving the new Pratt & Whitney turbofan engines which burned more fuel than expected. These were later amended with CFM International engines of greater
efficiency, but by the time they were available many airlines had pulled out. In USA, the A318 garnered some strong interest, primarily among airlines such as America West, Frontier and Trans World Airlines (TWA). However, of those three, only Frontier stayed true to its order, with America West opting instead for larger A319’s and A320’s, while TWA was bought by American Airlines and its orders were cancelled. While Airbus was hoping to market the A318 as a regional jet alternative, laws in both the U.S. and Europe have kept it in the same class as larger aircraft for calculating charges such as landing fees, limiting the type’s market potential.
Eventually, the aircraft came with the option of either the high efficiency CFM56-5 or the more powerful Pratt & Whitney PW6000 engines, with thrust ratings of between 21,600 and 23,800lbf, respectively.
The maiden flight of the Airbus A318 took place at Toulouse on January 15th, 2002, and the first customer delivery was on July 22nd, 2003, to Frontier Airlines. The launch with an American carrier was interesting for this European aircraft, quite possibly one of the only instances in Airbus’ history that this has occurred.
While there were sizeable orders by Frontier and Air France, the A318 has sadly been a hard aircraft to get over the counter. This doesn’t mean it was an abject failure, in fact it’s inability to sell is comparable to that of the 737-600, which has failed to find a market itself. On New Year’s Eve 2016, Airbus had received 80 orders for this model compared to 69 for the 737-600; this purchase pace being influenced by the strong sales of the Bombardier CRJ900 and Embraer E-Jets series. The biggest A318 customers at the beginning of 2017 were Governments, Executive and Private Jets, while Air France owns 18, LATAM Airlines Group owns 15, GECAS owns 12 and Frontier Airlines 9.
On top of this, a second variant of the A318 was announced in 2005, this being dubbed the A318 Elite, a competitor to the Boeing Business Jet. This specialist version has a range of up to 4,000nmi, with a choice of two cabin layouts seating up to 18 passengers, and powered by CFM engines. Comlux Aviation became the launch customer by ordering three A318 Elite aircraft.
The most notable version of the A318, however, are a set of A318 Elites used by British Airways on BA001, London City to New York JFK via Shannon in Ireland. An Elite model was tested at London City in 2006 to try out its ability to arrive and depart an airport of comparatively steep approach, with LCY being a prefect contender seeing as approaching and departing aircraft have to literally dodge skyscrapers in order to succeed. The A318 also proved itself able to park on the airport’s limited apron space, being only slightly larger than the BAe-146’s and de Havilland Dash-8’s that surrounded it.
With all testing completed, British Airways took delivery of two Airbus A318’s in a 32-seat configuration for their new Elite service, a spiritual successor to Concorde (though infinitely slower). The concept is that for an extortionate amount of cash you can fly aboard BA Flight 001 (the former Concorde callsign for the first LHR to JFK flight of the day) from London City to New York JFK with a stop off in Shannon, Ireland. Due to the aircraft’s size it cannot depart London City on a full tank, so it flies with a third its fuel capacity to Shannon before refuelling to cross the Atlantic. In the hour or so it takes to fill the plane, passengers carry out their US Immigration in Ireland which means that, upon arrival at JFK, passengers can leave the airport via the domestic terminal and not have to wait for hours and hours in queues awaiting immigration checks.
Actually, I think their hideously overpriced service is worth every penny!
So far, the A318 has suffered no accidents or incidents, but, as mentioned, is still struggling to sell in any great numbers. Aircraft of such a small size but of such expense are not exactly shined upon by the airline industry, and thus trying to sell these aircraft which, ostensibly, would probably operate at a loss, makes them undesirable. While airlines, such as Air France, British Airways and Frontier, that do use them have no major issues, the A318 is a gamble that many airlines are really not willing to take. It’s a shame because I do really quite like this aircraft, a compact design but with a few party pieces that make it worth the purchase.