Airbus A380, once the future of aviation, may cease production

VIDEO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The days may be numbered for the world's largest passenger aircraft.

Airbus, the European aerospace group that makes the A380 superjumbo, said on Monday (Jan 15) that it would have to end production of the plane if its only major customer, Emirates, did not order more.

"If we can't work out a deal with Emirates, I think there is no choice but to shut down the programme," John Leahy, the chief operating officer of Airbus, said during a webcast with journalists.

"But," he added, "I'm hopeful that we'll work out a deal."

Emirates, based in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

While it would be premature to write the A380's obituary, there is little doubt that the double-decker plane - once touted as the future of aviation - has been an enormous disappointment and a financial disaster for Airbus, the most formidable competitor to Boeing in the passenger aeroplane market.

When Airbus started delivering the A380 a decade ago, the company, based in Toulouse, France, saw the plane as the solution to airport congestion and to increased demand for air travel. Only so many planes can land at an airport in any given day, so if the planes carried more people, the argument went, airports could absorb more passengers.

 

The A380, with that in mind, can carry more than 500 passengers while also offering amenities like showers, first-class suites and a bar.

But air traffic has gravitated to smaller, regional airports, favouring Boeing and its 787 Dreamliner, a midsize, wide-bodied plane that can carry a maximum of 330 passengers. The Dreamliner has two engines, making it much less expensive to maintain than the four-engine A380.

Airbus did not book any orders for the A380 last year, the company said Monday. In fact, orders for two planes were canceled.

The superjumbo's poor performance overshadowed an otherwise decent year for Airbus, which said on Monday that it delivered 718 aircraft in 2017, a 4 per cent increase from a year earlier. The company said it had a backlog of orders worth US$1.1 billion.

Airbus's best-seller by far was the A320 line, versions of which can carry up to 240 passengers, or about half as many as the A380.

Leahy, the Airbus chief operating officer, said on Monday that the A380's best days were ahead. Passenger traffic is doubling every 15 years, he said, meaning that the original rationale for the model still holds.

Airbus, as a result, is still betting that airlines flying between large, highly congested hubs in London or New Delhi will have no choice but to buy larger planes if they want to continue to grow.

"If people want to fly, they need to fly in bigger aircraft," Leahy said. "This is an aeroplane whose time will come."

But he acknowledged that, until that day arrives, Airbus needs a minimum of six to eight orders a year to keep production alive at the A380's final assembly plant near Toulouse, France.

For the moment, he said, the only likely customer for those planes is Emirates.

"They are probably the only one who has the ability right now," Leahy said.