South African Airways (SAA) celebrated its first of nine new Airbus A340-600s marking the commencement of a 41 aircraft, 10-year total fleet modernization programme.

When it puts the A340-600 into service later this month, SAA will become the first airline in the southern Hemisphere and in Africa to operate the ultra-long range, high capacity aircraft. SAA will operate the A340-600s on routes from Johannesburg to Frankfurt and Hong-Kong.

The largest member of Airbus' market leading A330/A340 Family, the A340-600 provides operators with unrivalled standards of space, comfort and amenity in each cabin class. SAA has chosen a very spacious layout, seating 48 passengers in a luxurious Premium Business Class and 291 in Economy.

"The arrival of the first A340-600 marks a new step in our partnership with Airbus and Rolls-Royce and enables us to further benefit from the Airbus aircraft's operational commonality," said SAA CEO, André Viljoen. "The introduction of the A340-600 will enable us to open up new long-haul trans-Oceanic routes while offering our passengers the highest levels of comfort. For SAA, four engines is the best solution for ultra-long haul flights, especially if they involve flights over desolate terrain or oceans. At the same time, the additional cargo deck space on the A340-600 means we can almost double our cargo uplift compared with what is possible on the 747s."

"The fact that a visionary and prestigious airline like South African Airways amongst the first airlines in the world to operate the A340-600, once again endorses the success of the A340-500/-600 programme and illustrates the benefits which can be achieved through the application of proven modern technology and commonality in aircraft design and operations," said Airbus Chief Executive Officer Noël Forgeard.

Powered by four Rolls-Royce Trent 500 engines, the A340-600 offers total freedom of flight, unrestricted by ETOPS regulations. This allows airlines to fly more direct routes, saving travel time, cutting fuel consumption and reducing costs.

SAA has also ordered the smaller A340-300Enhanced, becoming the launch customer for this new type of which it will receive six commencing in 2004. It has also placed orders for 15 single-aisle A319 and 11 A320 twin-engined aircraft for use on mainline domestic and regional routes within Africa. These will be delivered between 2005 and 2010.

This entirely new fleet will enable SAA to fully exploit the unique common design concept pioneered by Airbus. Sharing the same cockpit layout, operational procedures and handling characteristics, the aircraft can be operated by SAA as a single fleet, with pilots qualified to fly all of four types on a regular basis after only a few days difference training.

A leading aircraft manufacturer with the most modern and comprehensive product line on the market, Airbus is a global company with design and manufacturing facilities in France, Germany, the UK, and Spain as well as subsidiaries in the U.S., China and Japan. Headquartered in Toulouse, France, Airbus is an EADS joint Company with BAE SYSTEMS.