Airbus A-380: Giant jet venture fails to take off

More than 10 years after Airbus unveiled its superjumbo, the A-380 has failed to fly high as poor sales threaten its very existence

They had been excited for months, in anticipation of a 10th birthday bash. Staying connected through their First to Fly Facebook page, about 20 of them had even printed commemorative T-shirts to mark the occasion. But to the disappointment of die-hard Airbus A-380 fans, Oct 25, 2017, came and went: No party, no champagne-popping, no cake-cutting. Nothing.

What a difference a decade makes. I still remember vividly Oct 25, 2007: The convivial atmosphere as 450 passengers including 75 journalists and members of the First to Fly group - from about 35 different nationalities - descended on Changi Airport.

At 8am, after a big party on the ground, Singapore Airlines Flight SQ380 took off for Sydney. What a proud moment it was for Singapore and for SIA which was operating the first commercial flight on the biggest passenger jet the world had even seen. And what glory it brought to the plane's European maker, Airbus.

Fast forward a decade and the superjumbo - dubbed the new Queen of the Skies back then - which many thought would transform air travel, is in intensive care. If its vital signs do not improve soon, its makers may have no choice but to pull the plug on an aircraft that had cost them more than US$25 billion to develop.

How did it get to this?

CASE FOR A GIANT PLANE

The business proposition seemed sound. As the demand for air travel soars and major airports around the world are bound to get more congested, the A-380, which can carry more than 500 people in a three-class configuration, would be a sure winner.

But after a flurry of initial orders from SIA, Emirates, Air France, Qantas and aircraft lessors, the buying spree fizzled out. Since February 2014, Airbus has received orders for just about five A-380s. Along the way, airlines have also cancelled orders for more than 30 of the superjumbos.

The net result: As at the end of last month, Airbus had sold 317 A-380s and delivered 217 to 13 operators, leaving a backlog of 100 planes. From 28 deliveries in 2016, the firm is looking at just eight in 2019.

It's a dismal record, when one considers that the A-350, a smaller 300-plus-seater aircraft that started flying commercially much later in 2015, has already secured about 900 orders.

Bad timing, changes in the operating landscape for airlines, new travel trends and the advent of revolutionary technology that made newer planes too attractive to turn down, broadly explain why the A-380 failed to really take off.

A-380 WOES

Within a year of the first commercial flight, a number of calamitous events, including the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers, shook the global financial system and sent the world economy spiralling into a deep recession. The air travel industry was badly hit. Demand nosedived and budgets were slashed.


An Airbus A-380 at the 52nd Paris Air Show in June last year. Since February 2014, Airbus has received orders for just about five A-380s. PHOTO: REUTERS

Then came the fuel crisis which sent oil prices sky-high, making it almost impossible for airlines to operate the four-engined A-380 viably. While prices have eased since then, the market remains highly volatile and fuel is still the biggest cost item for airlines, accounting for about half of total costs in some cases.

To make things worse for the superjumbo, overcapacity hit the market when airlines - especially the Middle Eastern carriers - went into aggressive expansion mode. Air fares dropped, which made travellers very happy, even as airlines saw shrinking profits.

The A-380 was becoming very unattractive, unless airlines could carry enough people to improve overall yields. But this would have compromised customer comfort and service levels, and stretched airport and other resources. This could be why, though certified for up to 868 passengers, no airline has put more than 540 seats on the A-380. SIA's current fleet of 18 A-380s have up to 441 seats.

As if a global financial crisis and operational woes were not enough, the A-380 also suffered when Airbus' predictions of how the market would develop, did not materialise. Both Airbus and its American rival, Boeing, were confident that air traffic would double every 15 years but they differed on a major issue.

HUB-AND-SPOKE OR POINT-TO-POINT

While Airbus placed its bets on hub-and-spoke traffic, which would fuel demand for big planes like the A-380, Boeing was convinced the future was in point-to-point traffic which would offer travellers direct and convenient connections between cities.

It seems the Americans were right. Even as major airports in London, Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai and elsewhere are handling more passengers, it is the secondary airports that have grown phenomenally to cater to the demand for direct links. So while before, travellers from Changi Airport, for example, had to fly to major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai to connect to other parts of the country, Changi now offers direct flights to more than 30 Chinese cities. The proliferation of budget airlines in the Asia-Pacific region from about 2004 also shifted the market and the demand for air travel towards point-to-point traffic.

Mr Shukor Yusof of Endau Analytics said: "The A-380 is at best, a niche aircraft that works for a number of specific routes. You don't need to carry that many people on most sectors. It also says something about the relevance of the A-380 when China, the world's largest aviation market, has just one airline that operates five A-380s."

To be fair, Boeing has had worse luck than Airbus, with its own B-747-8 jumbo jet which it told the world about in 2005. But unlike Airbus which had to spend billions to develop the A-380 from scratch, the B-747-8 - the third generation of the original 747 - cost significantly less.

Banking on its belief that airlines wanted efficient and not giant flying machines, Boeing focused all efforts and resources on developing a new lightweight plane, with more fuel-efficient carbon fibre composites. In 2009, the 787 Dreamliner made its maiden flight. Touted to be at least 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than similar planes at the time, the B-787 is a hit, with about 1,300 orders to date.

Airbus had to respond and less than four years later, test-flew its A-350 - an aircraft that SIA's chief executive officer Goh Choon Phong has dubbed a "game-changer".

So where does all this leave the A-380?

HANGING BY A THREAD

The A-380 has just one major lifeline: Emirates. The Dubai-based carrier, which recently collected its 100th superjumbo, has another 42 on order.

SIA, which has five new A-380s coming, has said it does not need more, and plans to also retire its first five A-380s. It has, however - much to Airbus' delight - decided to retrofit its existing superjumbos with new seats and other in-flight products that were unveiled in a grand event last week.

Another piece of good news for the ailing A-380 could also come as early as this weekend at the Dubai Air Show. Emirates is reportedly close to sealing a deal for a fresh A-380 order, for more than 20 planes.

A sale, though, would at best prolong the A-380 programme for a few more years, Mr Shukor said. "You cannot sustain an aircraft programme with just one airline. And what happens when the planes need to be retired? Even SIA, which has never had trouble selling its aircraft in the second-hand market, is not able to find buyers for its first few A-380s.

"I don't deny that this is an aircraft that many travellers love and I'm not saying this because I hate the A-380: I don't. But the reality is that most airlines have no appetite for a four-engined aircraft in today's market. The A-380 is just not viable economically."

StrategicAero Research chief consultant Saj Ahmad was more blunt. "While Concorde will go down as one of the biggest commercial failures in aviation history, the biggest financial failure in the aerospace history books belongs to the A-380...

"At best, the A-380 will provide great material for beer cans and recycled knives."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 11, 2017, with the headline 'Giant jet venture fails to take off'. Print Edition | Subscribe