It was over a year ago that the spotters' guide series looked at the Boeing B737, so it's about time that we took on the Airbus A320. The Airbus A320-series is, according to Airbus Industries, "the undisputed best-selling aircraft product line of all time." As of August, 2011, nearly 5,000 A320 family aircraft have been built, and another 3,000 are on order. The various A320 models (A318/A319/A320/A321) compete with similar models in the Boeing B737 family. We'll start with the A318 (my personal favorite of the A320 family) and work our way through the series.
The A318 is the newest and, with a seating capacity of 107 to 132, smallest member of the A320 family; it competes with the Boeing B737-600 and the Embraer E-195. Other competitors for the A318 include the Boeing B717 (formerly MD-95), the BAe 146, and the Fokker 100 (all three now out of production); and the Bombardier CRJ1000 and still-in-development CSeries. Just like its primary competitor, the B737-600, the A318 is not a big seller. While the B736 and the A318 have sold less than a hundred units apiece, each of the other members of the A320 family have over a thousand orders.
As an aside, I'll note that stretching an existing aircraft design seems to work out better than shrinking it. Successful stretched models go back at least as far as the DC-8; most of the DC-8s still flying are the long-bodied 60-series. The DC-9 was also developed into longer versions, as was the B737. Besides the A318 and B736, other examples of this "smaller plane = smaller sales" phenomenon could include the MD-87 (a shortened member of the MD-80 series), the B747SP, and the A340-200. Even in little airplanes, bigger seems to be better: the Beechcraft 36 Bonanza continues in production to this day, while the shorter 33 and 35 models are long-discontinued. I admit that this isn't quite an apples-to-apples comparison, since the 35 and 33 preceded the 36; whereas each of the airliner models mentioned was a follow-on development from a longer existing model. Nevertheless, it illustrates my point that the bigger version sells better than the smaller one.
As of this writing, the only airline operating A318s in the United States is Frontier Airlines, who was the launch customer for the A318 and who currently has four in its fleet. We see them occasionally at LAX, usually operated on the Denver route, a flight of less than two hours. Frontier's A318s accommodate 120 passengers in a single-class configuration.
The other regular A318 operator at LAX used to be Mexicana, who had ten in their fleet. Mexicana's were in a two-class configuration that seated 100 passengers. At one time, Mexicana had the largest presence of any foreign airline at LAX, with over a hundred flights a day. Their A318s flew to Puerto Vallarta, San Jose del Cabo, Mexia, and Guadalajara, all flights of two to two and a half hours; and even, on occasion, to Morelia and Mexico City, which are three-hour flights. Sadly, it appears that the efforts to revive Mexicana have come to naught, so we'll have to make do with pictures:
Like Boeing, Airbus has found a market for airliners as business jets. Here's a corporate A318 that appears at LAX occasionally:
For the spotter, the most distinguishing characteristic of the A318 has got to be its proportions; while it's the shortest member of the A320 family, it has the tallest tail. This seems to be easiest to see from a distance; take another look at the lonesome Mexicana shot above. Another thing to look for: Because the A318's tail is taller than on the other A320-series aircraft, it has a narrower (front-to-back) tip. In each of the following two shots, you can compare the A318's tail to that of an A320, which may make it easier to see the difference:
A pair of Mexicanas: The A318 in the foreground had to wait for the A320 to pass through the intersection. An interesting detail is that not only do we no longer have Mexicana at LAX, we no longer have the taxiways that you see them on in this photo; the A318 is on the now-decommissioned Taxiway Quebec; the A320 on the old Taxiway Sierra, which is in the process of being relocated to about where the building with the yellow truck is seen in the background.
From the archives: A Northwest B744 taxis in as a Mexicana A318 departs
Mexicana A318 with Southwest B733
Mexicana A318 with Southwest B733
An interesting note: While the A318 seems to be best-suited for short- to medium-length flights, I discovered that British Airways uses a pair of special A318s for flights between New York and London. They operate as British Airways flights 1 through 4; flight numbers formerly carried by the Concorde.
Airbus Industries: A318
Frontier fleet: A318
Wikipedia: A320 family