Airbus A320 Guide and Specs [2022]: The World’s Highest-Selling Narrowbody

In the late 1970’s stakeholders in the EU aviation industry saw the need to end the dominance of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas in the single-aisle jetliner market, which led to the start of the JET (Joint European Transport) program. The JET program was initially independent of Airbus; however, it would later be handed over to the company. 

The JET program aimed to create a single-aisle twinjet capable of ferrying roughly 150 passengers for around 5,000 km (2,699 nm). The aircraft would be powered by CFM International’s 56 series turbofan engines to accomplish this. 

In order to effectively compete with the well-established Boeing 737, Airbus decided to future-proof the A320, reduce manufacturing costs, and undercut Boeing. It did precisely that. 

Design

In March 1984, Airbus announced the A320, a single-aisle twinjet designed for short and medium-haul flights. The Airbus A320 is typically configurated to carry between 140 – 170 passengers, but in a single-class configuration could hold a maximum of 186.

Airbus pioneered the use of composite materials in their aircraft and expanded its use with the A320. 15% of the A320 is made of composite materials. It is the first aircraft to use composite materials on flight surfaces.

The overall effect was a lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft that had an MTOW of 78,000 kg (172,000 lbs) and a maximum payload of 18,0205 kg (40,136 lbs), which was higher than the competition.

The A320 is the first Airbus to offer customers a choice of powerplant. Initially, the A320 was only powered by CFM International’s CFM56-5-A1. However, a version equipped with the IAE’s V2500-A1 was soon made available. The IAE engine produces 2% less thrust than its CFM counterpart, 110 kN to 111.2 kN. But it is 4% more fuel-efficient than the latter. 

The combination of newer fuel-efficient engines, reduced weight, and smart materials gave the A320 a maximum range of 5,700 km (3,078 nm). Which were more than the 5,000 km (2,700 nm) airlines expected. 

The A320 is the first aircraft to introduce digital fly-by-wire controls in commercial jetliners. The inputs from the pilot on the controls are transmitted to the flight computer, which will filter out unwanted movements and allow razor-sharp control of the aircraft. It aims to reduce pilot error, which is the cause of 70% of accidents. 

Technology also allowed the manufacturer to do away with the traditional yoke controls that were required for hydraulically actuated controls and replace them with the now characteristic side-stick controls.

The cockpit of the A320 is devoid of analog gauges and is outfitted with a glass cockpit running their proprietary Electronic Centralized Aircraft Monitoring (ECAM) system. The system went one step ahead of its competitors at the time. It provides current information and corrective action that can be taken to prevent cascading failures. The system dramatically reduces pilot workload and allows them to focus on flying.  

New Engine Option Program

In December 2010, Airbus, once ahead, caught Boeing asleep at the wheel when it launched the A320neo (New Engine Option) program. The program’s focus was to improve the fuel efficiency of the Airbus A320 family by 15% and gain extra performance where possible.

Airbus planned to achieve these fuel savings using smarter aerodynamics and new engines. The engines use for the A320neos are CFM International’s LEAP-A1 and Pratt & Whitney’s PW1000G. The older aircraft had the designation CEO (Current Engine Option) added to differentiate the new from the old. 

The program achieved its goals for the A320 and would set the basis for its continued success. 

Path to Success

Even before its first flight, Airbus had received over 200 orders, more than half of which were surprisingly from carriers in the United States, a continent firmly controlled by Boeing & McDonnell Douglas. This was purely a testament to the forethought that Airbus had put into the A320, making it vastly superior to the competition in design and specifications. 

In 2019, Airbus became the largest airliner manufacturer in the world, thanks in no small part to the A320’s immense success. In October of the same year, 37 years since its release, the A320 overtook its competitor, the Boeing 737, in sales to become the world’s highest-selling jetliner. As of May 2022, Airbus has received 16,206 orders for the A320 and has delivered 10,359 of them. 

Airbus A320 Specifications

Parameter A320ceo A320neo
Exterior Dimensions
Length 37.57 m (123 ft 3 in)
Height 11.76 m (38 ft 7 in)
Fuselage Width 3.95 m (13 ft 0 in
Wingspan  34.10 m (111 ft 11 in)
Wingspan (with Sharklets) 35.80 m (117 ft 5 in)
Wing Area 122.6 m² (1,320 ft²) 123 m² (1323 ft²)
Wing Sweep 25°
Wheelbase 12.64 m (41 ft 5 in)
Wheel Track 7.59 m (24 ft 11 in)
Interior Dimensions
Length 27.51 m (90 ft 3 in)
Width 3.95 m (12 ft 1 in)
Freight Capacity 37.41 m³ (1,321 ft³)
Water Volume 44 m³ (1,556 ft³)
Maximum Number of Pallets Underfloor 7
Weights
Maximum Ramp Weight 78,400 kg (172,800 lbs) 79,380 kg (175,000 lbs)
Maximum Take-Off Weight 78,000 kg (172,000 lbs) 79,000 kg (174,200 lbs)
Maximum Landing Weight 66,000 kg (145,500 lbs) 67,400 kg (148,590 lbs)
Maximum Zero Fuel 62,500 kg (137,800 lbs) 64,300 kg (141,760 lbs)
Operating Empty Weight 42,600 kg (93,900 lbs) 44,300 kg (97,700 lbs)
Maximum Payload 18,205 kg (40,136 lbs) 20,000 kg (44,092 lbs)
Performance
Range (without Sharklets) 5,700 km (3,078 nm) N/A
Range (with Sharklets) 6,200 km (3,350 nm) 6,300 km (3,400 nm)
Cruise Speed Mach 0.78 (828 kmph / 511 mph)
Maximum Mach Number Mach 0.82 (871 kmph / 537 mph)
Fuel Capacity 27,200 l (7,190 USG)
Fuel Burn (Per Hour) 2,500 kg (5,511 lbs) 2,125 kg (4,684 lbs)
Takeoff Distance (SL, ISA, MTOW) 2,090 m (6,860 ft) 1,951 m (6,400 ft)
Service Ceiling 12,500 m (41,000 ft)
Takeoff Thrust 111 – 120 kN (25,000 – 27,000 lbf) 120.4 – 121 kN (27,070 – 27,120 lbf)
Occupancy
Flight Crew 2
Occupancy (2 Class) 140 – 170 150 – 180
Occupancy Max 180 189
Systems
Flight Deck Proprietary Airbus A320 Flight Deck
Engine(s) CFM International CFM56-5 CFM International LEAP-1A
International Aero Engines V2500 Pratt & Whitney PW1000G
Auxiliary Power Unit Honeywell 131-9A

Airbus A320 Flight Characteristics

The Airbus A320 is known to be a pleasant aircraft to fly, thanks to its fly-by-wire system and computerization. 

The flight computers on the A320 allow pilots to control the aircraft exactly how they want by eliminating unwanted movements. The computers are also designed to offer pilots corrective actions should they find themselves in an abnormal situation. 

Airbus A320 Modifications and Options

Airbus aircraft are designed to be upgradeable. Most of the features newer aircraft receive can be retrofitted to older aircraft with little effort. It allows older A320s to stay in service for longer while still being economical and technologically current. 

Avionics and flight deck upgrades are the most common. Airbus aircraft are more dependent on computers than their Boeing counterparts. Therefore, upgrading the flight deck does not only help improve the flying experience but can improve safety as well. 

The upgrade that gives older A320s the biggest performance improvement are sharklets. Once installed, the aircraft can gain as much as 4% improvement in aerodynamic efficiency and as much as 500 km (270 nm) increase in range. 

The interior of the A320 is highly customizable. Companies such as FL Technics undertake these projects for airlines and help rebuild the aircraft’s interior to make them feel brand new for passengers. 

An extreme example of the A320’s upgradability is the Jet Blue program. The carrier revamped A320s as old as 1999 with brand new interiors, including mood lighting, 18” touchscreens, a new air purification system, cabin noise reduction package, and advanced lavatories. 

Airbus A320 Price

In January 2021, the asking price for the A320neo was 110.6 million, and the list price for an A320ceo was $101 million. On July 1, 2022, Airbus secured a deal with China Jet for an order of 96 A320neos, which cost $12.2 billion, bringing the cost of each aircraft to $127.1 million. 

There are plenty of used A320s. After all, they have been in production for 37 years. The used prices for these aircraft fluctuate wildly based on the hours accumulated, the age of the aircraft, and the equipment on board. 

Airbus A320 Operation Costs

The A320’s operation costs can be separated into two categories: fixed and variable costs.

Fixed Costs

These costs are independent of the flight time of the aircraft. These costs will remain static whether the aircraft is parked over the year or if it flies 10,000 hours. Aircraft Cost Calculator estimates that the annual fixed costs for A320 are roughly $390,270. 

Lease Cost

Most aircraft, especially jetliners, are seldom purchased outright. Usually, a lease is used to make the cost more manageable. A 2020 study by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University found that the average lease period for an aircraft is 25 years. 

Calculating the annual lease cost for an A320 over 25 years at the sticker price would give us an annual cost of $4.4 million a year. 

Crew Salary

The A320 is operated by a flight crew of two and, depending on the configuration, up to five cabin crew. The average salary for a captain of an A320 in Emirates Airlines is $192,100, with the average base pay of $139,400 and $52,600 in additional pay. 

For the first officer, Emirates Airlines pays between $144,024 to $154,642. This is a rough estimate for the entire industry, but Emirates is one of the better-paying airlines. The pay range varies wildly based on the airline and the years of experience the pilot has. Glassdoor estimates the range that A320 pilots earn to be anywhere between $355,000 and $36,000. 

Cabin crew for an A320 operating for the low-cost carrier Wizz Air UK will earn a minimum of $23,500 annually. This would mean that a fully loaded A320 costs an average of $422,600 annually. 

Maintenance Costs

The maintenance costs for an Airbus A320 vary heavily on the age of the aircraft, equipment on board, and the choice of powerplant. Fixed maintenance costs come in the form of annual inspections.

Insurance

Airlines have to abide by the ICAO laws and treaties. The Rome convention, Unlawful Interference convention, and Warsaw convention require airlines to compensate passengers and third parties for incidents and accidents. 

Airlines often hold additional insurance to protect the airline, aircraft, and flight crew from liability and accidents. It is nearly impossible to get an estimate for the cost an airline would pay for insurance because the cost depends on the locations the airlines fly to, the type of fleet, the experience of the personnel, and other factors. 

Variable Costs

These costs are directly proportional to the number of hours the aircraft flies. Aircraft Cost Calculator estimates that the cost for an A320 flying 450 hours a year will incur a variable cost of $3,640,950. The figure includes fuel at $7 a gallon. 

Fuel

The highest cost for any aircraft is fuel. The more you fly, the more fuel you burn. Fuel burn varies depending on the conditions of the atmosphere, altitude, thrust level, weight, and level of skin contamination. 

An A320 burns an average of 2,500 kg an hour, roughly 780 US gal (2,952 l). The global cost for a US gallon of Jet-A1 is $4.04 on July 3, 2022. This means the annual variable cost of fuel per hour is $3,151. The yearly cost of 450 hours per year is $1,418,040.

The amount quoted above is a rough estimate. The fuel price varies based on the country where the aircraft is being refueled. In the Middle East, the fuel cost will be significantly less than in Europe. 

Maintenance Costs

Part 121 operators often use a phase inspection system certified by the FAA. This replaces the usual maintenance schedule. For example, a 100-hour inspection is separated into four phases of 25 hours. At the end of the phases, all the required areas will be inspected. 

Phase inspection programs reduce downtime and allow carriers to maintain the aircraft more efficiently. It also increases the safety factor as the aircraft are inspected more often.

Operating Costs

Operating costs for a flight are dependent on a variety of factors and the length of the flight itself. How many times are refreshments served? Is an overnight required for the crew? How much are the accommodation costs? Etc. 

Even if the answers to all the questions above are no. There are still costs that are incurred, such as navigation, landing, and handling fees. 

Storage Costs

There are two methods of parking/storing an aircraft: Ramp parking and hangar storage.

Tie-down storage involves renting space on the ramp to park the aircraft. The Narita International Airport in Japan charges an A320 $110 for less than six hours of parking. Ramp parking is relatively inexpensive, but it provides the bare minimum. The aircraft is not safe from the elements and incidents with airport vehicles and other agents. 

On the other hand, hangar storage offers aircraft the most protection and almost guarantees no harm will befall the aircraft. However, unless maintenance is being performed, most airlines do not keep their aircraft on the ground for an extended period. 

Airbus A320 Variants

A321

The first variant of the A320 was launched in November 1988. However, it wasn’t until six years later, in 1994, that it was first introduced into service. The A321 is a stretched variant of the A320 and remains is the largest aircraft in the A320 family. There are five variants of this aircraft.

The main design difference between the original A321-100 and the A320 is the fuselage length. The A321’s fuselage is 6.94 m (22 ft 9 in) longer due to the addition of two fuselage plugs to increase capacity, a 4.27 m (14 ft) and 2.67 m (8 ft 9 in) plug ahead and behind the wings, respectively. The extra length increased the max occupancy by 56 to 236.

The A321-100 has a maximum takeoff weight of 83,000 kg (183,000 lbs), an increase of 9,600 kg (21,200 lbs) from the A320. The additional weight and length required the structure of the A321 to be strengthened and emergency exits to be re-positioned. The wings were also upgraded with double-slotted flaps to increase lift production. 

Airbus didn’t add a fuselage tank to the A321-100. This oversight resulted in the A321 having a shorter range than the A320. The A321-100 only sold 90 units. Poor sales are mainly attributed to the lack of range. This was remedied with the introduction of the A321-200.

The A321-200 gave customers the option of either one or two center fuselage tanks, each with a capacity of 2,990 l (790 gals). Two new engines were also available in the form of either the IAE’s V2533-A5 or CFM International’s CFM56-5B3. The additional fuel and thrust increased the range of the aircraft and allowed it to fly from coast to coast. 

A319

The A319 took to the skies on August 25, 1995. It is the second variant of the A320 and the first shortened variant. It carries between 124 to 156 passengers, has an MTOW of 75,500 kg (166,000 lbs), and has a range of 6,490 km (3,750 nm) with a typical payload.

The A319 is essentially an Airbus A320 with seven fuselage frames removed, it was even referred to as the A320M-7. Other significant changes include de-rated engines to improve fuel efficiency and software changes to the fly-by-wire computers that altered the handling of the aircraft to accommodate its smaller size.  

A318


The A318 is the smallest and final variant of the A320. The aircraft has been shortened further and now occupies between 107 to 132 passengers and has an MTOW of 59,000 kg (130,073 lbs). The A318 has a maximum range of 5,950 km (3,213 nm)

Airbus A320 Competitors

Boeing 737

The arch-rival of the A320 has been and still is the Boeing 737. For decades the 737 held the title of best-selling narrowbody jetliner, but the A320 took over by beating it fair and square.

When the A320 was first released, the market was dominated by the second generation of the 737, the 737 Classic. Airbus managed to chip away at the market share by producing a vastly superior aircraft. But Boeing responded in kind with the release of the 737 NG, and the battle entered a stalemate. 

The big breakthrough came when Airbus released the A320neo. Which was extremely fuel-efficient and exactly what airlines needed. Boeing was caught unawares and scrambled to respond with a fuel-efficient aircraft of their own. This would lead to the poorly designed 737 Max and, as a result, the crashes and grounding of the aircraft. 

When the 737 Max was grounded, many of Boeings customers, some of whom had already placed orders for the 737 Max, turned to Airbus and the A320neo. This caused A320neo orders to skyrocket and propelled it to its current position. 

Airbus A320 Incidents and Accidents

The year-end data for 2020 shows that the A320 family of aircraft have been involved in 160 accidents and incidents. Which is quite low considering the millions of flight hours logged and the years that the aircraft has been in service. 

As of July 3, 2022, the A320 alone has had A320 a total of 40 hull loss accidents. This number increases to 55 when the A319 and A321 are added. The most recent hull loss accident occurred in China at the Chongqing-Jiangbei International Airport. There were no fatalities among the 122 occupants. However, 36 occupants were injured during the evacuation, and the aircraft was totaled.

There are two famous Airbus A320 accidents. The first occurred on June 26, 1988, and was the first-ever crash involving an A320. The Air France flight 296Q crashed during the Habsheim Air Show. The aircraft was supposed to conduct a low-pass over the airfield at 100 ft (30 m) but did the pass at 30ft (9m) instead. 

During the low and slow passes, the pilots had the thrust lever idle, and the application of go-around power was delayed. As a result, the airplane hit the trees at the end of the runway and crashed. Out of the 136 people on board, 34 had injuries, and three died. 

The aircraft pilots, the flying club president, and two Air France officials were charged and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. All five spent little to no time in prison. There has been a controversy surrounding the crash, and Airbus has been accused of switching out the blackboxes, but none of these claims have been proven. 

The second crash is one of the most famous aviation accidents in history and is referred to by millions as the miracle on the Hudson. It involved US Airways flight 1549 piloted by Captain Chelsea Sullenberger and first officer Jeffrey Skiles. The A320 took off at New York’s LaGuardia Airport and was destined for Charlotte, North Carolina. 

The aircraft took off from LaGuardia and struck a flock of geese on climbout at 2,818 feet (859 m). Both engines immediately shut down and, as a result of the severe damage, didn’t respond to the crew’s efforts to restart. 

The aircraft was in such a position where returning to LaGuardia or diverting to Teterboro were impossible. Sullenberger’s radio call “We’re gonna be in the Hudson” was delivered with an eerie calmness. Radio contact then ceased, after which Sullenberger skillfully ditched the aircraft in the Hudon river. 

There were 155 occupants on board, including the pilots and three cabin crew. There were no fatalities; however, 95 of the occupants were injured, with five sustaining serious injuries. It has been hailed as the most successful ditching in modern aviation history. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ):

Question: What Are Sharklets?

Answer: Sharklets are Airbus’ proprietary winglets. The winglets reduce aerodynamic drag in the form of wake turbulence and improve overall efficiency as a result. 

Question: What Purpose Does an Auxiliary Power Unit (APU) Serve?

Answer: An APU is used to power the aircraft’s systems when the engines are shut down. It also serves as a power source for the ignition of the engine.

Question: What is Ditching?

Answer: In aviation, the term ditching is used to define an emergency landing of an aircraft in the water. 

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