We Went To France To See How Airbus Builds Passenger Jets Faster Than Anyone Else

This week,
Airbus published its latest 20-year outlook report, predicting the world will need 29,000 new commercial planes by 2032.

Single-aisle planes — like the Airbus A320, Boeing 737, and newcomer Bombardier CSeries — will account for 71% of those deliveries.

This year alone, airlines have ordered 382 A320 family jets.

Part of the challenge, then, is building the planes as quickly as possible to meet demand.

In that arena, Airbus has pulled ahead. It cranks out 42 A320s per month (that includes A318, A319, and A320, and A321 planes) — which it says is the highest commercial aircraft monthly production rate ever.

This summer, we visited Toulouse, the French city where Airbus is headquartered and assembles many of its planes, to take a first-hand look at how it achieves that rate.

The Airbus factory is enormous.

The plant (circled in yellow) is actually in Blagnac, a suburb of Toulouse (circled in yellow).

It covers 2,000 acres, and the 20,000 people who work there generate on-site traffic jams at lunch time. It has its own bike share program. (Finished planes are weighed and tested in these buildings.)

In Toulouse, Airbus has Final Assembly Lines (FAL) for the A320, A380, and new A350 jets. It completes 16 A320s each month.

Different parts of the A320 are made at various Airbus plants.

The front of the fuselage is made in St. Nazaire, France. The rear portion is built in Hamburg.

The wings are made in the UK.

To get those huge parts to Toulouse (or another A320 FAL), Airbus uses its special transport plane, the Beluga. (Pictured is part of a new A350 jet.)

The odd-looking jet is a regular site at the plant.

The planes are moved by cranes along two identical assembly lines. They change stations every few days on average.

To join the plane parts together, workers drill holes and install about 4,000 fasteners.

The fuselage is put together, then the wings are bolted on.

Then the floors are finished, the electric power is turned on, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers are installed.

The tail cone (including the auxiliary power unit) is put on near the end of the process. Same for the engines.

This building was not designed for A320 production. To get the finished planes out, Airbus workers actually tilt them upright, lowering the tail fin enough to fit through the low door.

From the arrival of the parts in Toulouse, it takes about three months to finish the plane. Then the jet is tested and delivered to the customer.

Toulouse is home to the first A320 assembly line, but not the only one. Workers in Hamburg, Germany finish 20 A320s each month.

In 2008, Airbus opened another final assembly line in Tianjin, China -- the first such Airbus facility outside Europe.

The aerospace giant sends experienced workers to the new plants, to help them learn the ropes. Now, Airbus builds 42 A320s every month.

In April 2013, Airbus broke ground on a fourth A320 assembly line, in Mobile, Alabama. The plant should be delivering A320s by 2018.

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