The jury is still out..on the Airbus A380….

AirFrance A380

Some milestones are hard to see clearly until many years pass and the verdict is finally in, but as the 2 year milestone of being in service for the Airbus A380 came around, it is still not clear of whether this machine and Airbus are in the clear.

to date  there are 20 A380s in service with three airlines – SIA, Emirates and Qantas -which have accumulated 75,000h, operated 8,000 flights and carried at least 2.5 million passengers, and firm orders for the A380 to 202 aircraft from 17 customers.

Sales have dropped to only 2 orders for 2009, and the many A380’s that have been ordered have been referred or given delayed deliveries, many commentators have said the double-decker is just too big and will lose money constantly and the severely delayed Boeing 787 was still the better way to go.

The two years in service report notes that the aircraft did have issues of reliability which is typical for like Emirates based in Dubai, their technical dispatch reliability benchmark is above 98.5%, and Tim Clark (Emirates CEO) says that while Airbus is guaranteeing 98.5% “we’re not there yet. We’re at 97%, sometimes 96%.

Most faults have been through oversensitive sensors (moisture contamination was another pain) that go off and create a no-go fault warning and a (return to gate), Airbus have worked quickly to rectify the situation and most warnings are now nulled as they adjusted the computer algorithms for failure detection as to not be so sensitive, main gear steering system (MEL) caused some concerns too, the trailing axle of the two six-wheel centre bogies is articulated to avoid tyre scrub on the inside wheels, and the wedge that must lock the steering in place for take-off has proved problematic, again a fix has been sorted and the problems solved, a nose wheel problem on a Qantas service to London stranded the machine on the runway and had to towed to the gate for disembarkation and finally two in-flight shutdown of the Trent 900 engine were “non-basic”, which means the engine’s basic design was not at fault.

It feels like a long bad list but all new aircraft (and remember the A380 is a generational design) have such new operational problems and in fact the list is very small, the real problem is that if the aircraft is not serviceable is then what do you do with nearly 500 passengers!, luckily it hasn’t happened often, but when it does it creates a major logistical problem.

So what of the other factors, in this case the A380 has been a spectacular success, passengers just rave about the space, the quietness of the design and load factors are extremely high, pilots are gushing with praise for its flying characteristics and low turbulence factors (its noted that its like the Queen Mary 2 in the sky, it just plows on through) and the plane is more efficient than promised by the manufacturer (since when has that happened in the past), SIA generally cruises its A380s at M0.83-0.85, and the approach speed – for a landing weight close to the 397t maximum take-off of a 747-400 – is an impressively slow 130-135kt (240-250km/h). they found the faster you flew the more efficient the A380 became so in service the machine has not only delivered but is well above expectations and will get better again with improvements of weight reduction and engine upgrades coming after 2012.

On the ground it again has not proved to be problematic with its size and weight, turnaround times range from 90-110min, depending on route and operator. For example, Emirates does 90min turns at London Heathrow between the inbound EK001 and outbound EK002, which is impressive with such huge numbers (Passengers,Cargo & Catering) to cater for.

2010 will be the year that the Airbus A380 will be declared a success or failure, a major step forward in design and operations, unfortunately the GFC crisis was the worst situation to be faced by a machine designed to carry such high load factors (hence the delayed deliveries and few new orders) and could have, but didn’t turn it into a loss making albatross (a la Concorde), in fact its extremely high load factors bids it well in the future.

The reason that 2010 is significant is in the way Air France intends to introduce its first A380’s into service in December 2009 and Lufthansa in the Late1stQ 2010, unlike the 3 current airlines (Singapore/Qantas/Emirates) these European Carriers are going more for the higher seating configurations of 538-seat Air France and 550 seat Lufthansa, the Aircraft is already known to very efficient and now you have a considerable higher load factors and certainly higher yields and profit, the Boeing 747 was a game changer in price (seats per mile) in the early 70’s and the fares plummeted, that won’t happen here but it will give the two European airlines a significant advantage as with what Qantas is finding with its A380 SYD-LAX services against newcomer VAustralia, in fact Qantas is mulling over the fact of whether to pull back its yield losing 1st Class and Business class sections to go the from the current 450 seats to 500+, its 72 business class seating is a folly and change will certainly and must be forthcoming, but the point is it is doing the busines without the better (higher) configurations, Air France and Lufthansa will be doing so from the start of their operations, if it is a success the A380 will be declared a winner, if it flys with plenty of empty seats it could damage it’s too big for the market image beyond doubt, however if the new services are successful then the Airbus will certainly be declared a success and more orders will follow.

In most cases already the A380 is a spectacular success, but this too large a capacity is still lead weight around its neck and could hurt the design (and Sales), again with 787 still nowhere close to being in service, the A380 over the next 12 months could finally cement its position in the industry.

Another breakthrough is if an American Airline chooses the A380 to fly from the mainland to Asia (japan, China), Americans are very territorial and anything Boeing builds is far better than Airbus can build, but significantly today many Airbus products are flying in the mainland USA (A320/321, A330, A340) and the Americans are liking what they are flying on and with its capacity/yields/profit the A380 can make serious money on the Pacific Routes and if the Americans don’t use them someone else will.

The Airbus A380 is a game changer, hub to hub it has no peers except for the Boeing 777, but from mega city to mega city and fare wise it is a real profit machine, the Boeing 787 will still be a serious competitor but cheap fares and space are winners if you want to attract passengers and over the summer of 2010 with AirFrance/Lufthansa will prove that theory … the Airbus A380 has both the space and the case for cheaper airfares in spades.


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