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Despite its difficult birth, Airbus's new super-jumbo is about to enter service. So begins the next stage in the battle for the future of air travel
FLYING from Changi Airport to Sydney, in the blue and gold livery of Singapore Airlines, the Airbus A380 will at long last enter commercial service on October 25th. On board the giant double-decker plane will be about 470 passengers, many of whom will have bought their seats in an eBay auction, raising $1.9m for charities. For both the airline and the manufacturer, the day will be one of celebration, when delays, spiralling development costs and financial controversy can be put to one side. But it will also mark the next stage of a commercial saga in which fortunes are wagered on the way the world will fly.
Few industries are more given to self-dramatisation than the aviation business. The decision to build an important new plane invariably means “betting the company”, while the aircraft itself is usually referred to by its messianic (or blinkered) maker as a “game-changer”. Both were true of the first Boeing 747, which the A380 has been designed to replace. The original jumbo jet entered service nearly 38 years ago and the financial strain of developing it almost brought mighty Boeing to its knees. But the huge leap in capacity offered by the 375-seat 747-100 compared with the next biggest plane then available, the 250-seat McDonnell Douglas DC-8, transformed both the experience and the economics of long-haul flying.
Boeing's 747 gamble eventually reaped rich rewards. Without a direct competitor and with nearly 1,400 sold over its long life, the 747 has been a matchless earner. Apart from that beautiful flop, the Concorde, no other aircraft is as recognisable or as loved. With the A380, Airbus has now risked everything; not only to kill off its rival's greatest cash cow, but also to create a similarly enduring icon to capture the imagination of the world's travellers.
Its success will depend not only on the quality of the aircraft, but on whether there is demand for a plane that can fly more than 500 passengers in a conventional three-class configuration or more than 800 in a single-class layout. Airbus is in no doubt that there is; Boeing, explaining its decision to offer only a mildly updated jumbo—the 747-8—in competition to the A380, says that the market has changed and Airbus has got its sums wrong.
A long time coming
The design of any new airliner begins years before its first flight. Appropriately for a super-jumbo, the A380 has had a long gestation. Airbus began looking at the possibility of building a 600-800 seat aircraft in 1990. But two years later Daimler-Benz and British Aerospace, two of the partners in the Airbus consortium as it then was, pushed for co-operation with Boeing on what prosaically came to be known as a new Very Large Commercial Transport (VLCT). Both companies knew the risk of competing head-on over such a big new aircraft. An earlier battle between the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed's L-1011 had weakened both firms and pushed Lockheed out of the commercial-aviation business entirely.
Jürgen Thomas, a veteran German engineer appointed to lead the project and who became known as the father of the A380, remains convinced that Boeing was serious about the partnership. Others were less sure. The view that came to prevail within Airbus, particularly with its French chief executive at the time, Jean Pierson, was that the Americans wanted to string the talks out for as long as possible.
For one thing, Boeing was insistent on producing a plane substantially bigger than the 747, which would complement rather than replace it. For another, as long as there was no agreement on how to build the VLCT, Boeing could continue to milk its 747 monopoly. It is said to have used its estimated $30m profit per 747 to cut the price of its other jets, like the 737, which face direct competition from Airbus.
The Europeans eventually plucked up the courage to go it alone in 1995. A year later they created a self-contained Large Aircraft Division, under Mr Thomas. After a series of meetings with prospective customers, Airbus became convinced that there was indeed a large market for a modern plane capable of carrying between 550 and 650 passengers up to 9,000 miles (15,000km). Airbus forecast that if air travel continued to grow by about 5% a year (see chart), there would be a need for 1,235 such aircraft by 2020. In April 2000, seven weeks before its official launch, one of those potential customers, the fast-growing Dubai-based airline Emirates, showed its faith in the project by declaring that it would buy ten A380s. By the end of the year Airbus had five more customers: ILFC, an influential aircraft-leasing operator, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.
As well as offering the range the airlines said they were looking for it also had the room: by placing one cabin on top of another, the A380 has 50% more floor area than a 747-400. Airbus also promised operating costs would be at least 15% per passenger less than those of its Boeing rival. It committed itself to much lower noise levels for passengers and people living near airports and to lower emissions.
But amid the excitement stoked by Airbus and its customers—there was talk of bars, shops, casinos (from Virgin's Sir Richard Branson) and showers in first class—it intensified a furious debate between Boeing and Airbus over the future of aviation. That debate rages on even as the A380 enters service.
Boeing argues that the market for very large, long-haul planes has been fragmented by the increasing popularity and capability of so-called “heavy twins”—big, twin-aisle planes with only two engines—and that aircraft like its own 747 and the A380 are now no more than “niche products”. Boeing began the trend with the 777. Known as the “Triple Seven”, it can carry more than 350 passengers in three classes and its longest-range version can fly more than 10,000 miles. When the Triple Seven entered service in 1995, airlines were worried that passengers would not relish the idea of flying across oceans on only two engines (even though such aircraft can manage on just one in an emergency). But such is the reliability and power of modern high-bypass turbofan engines that it has ceased to be a worry.
Airbus competes in the heavy-twin market with the slightly smaller A330 and, after several false starts, is developing the A350 XWB (extra-wide body) for entry into service in 2013. But it is Boeing that has set the pace with its 787 Dreamliner, a plane with a revolutionary all-composite fuselage made out of several single-barrel sections rather than a conventional frame with panels. The 787 should have flown by now, but is running late because of a shortage of aluminium fasteners and problems with its flight-control software. On October 10th Boeing said first deliveries of the 210-330-passenger plane will be delayed by six months to late November or December 2008. It is a blow, but with more than 800 firm orders and commitments Boeing will still have the most successful launch in the history of commercial aviation.
Boeing believes that a combination of airline deregulation and the popularity of heavy-twin aircraft have changed long-haul flying for good. Instead of the hub-and-spoke system, in which passengers flew in 747s to big hub airports and then took short-haul flights to their final destination, Boeing says that passengers now want the convenience of flying point-to-point and that smaller long-haul planes make it both possible and economical for them to do so. As evidence, Boeing points to the drying-up of orders for passenger versions of the 747.
Airbus has some equally persuasive counter-arguments. John Leahy, an American who is the top salesman at Airbus, dismisses the Boeing claims as not just wrong but irresponsible. “It's ridiculous,” he says. “Boeing's answer means burning more fuel per passenger, putting more strain on overloaded air-traffic control systems and creating more congestion at airports that are already finding it difficult to cope.”
Given the expected tripling of air-passenger traffic over the next 20 years, Airbus predicts that very large aircraft will reach some 3,400 flights a day out of 200 airports around the world. About 70% of those flights, however, will emanate from just 25 airports, many in Asia (see map). Today, 80% of 747 flights connect 37 airports. Airbus also points out that half the world's 100 fastest-growing long-haul routes connect two big hubs, such as Hong Kong-London and New York-Tokyo. The point is that many hub airports are also the origin and destination for more and more passengers.
Many of these big city airports are under enormous capacity and environmental strain. Significant expansion at London's Heathrow, for example, will be impossible without the construction of a third runway—and few believe it will ever be built because of restrictive planning rules and local political opposition. A recent order by British Airways (BA), the world's biggest 747-400 operator, for 12 A380s with options on a further seven has bolstered the Airbus case.
Willie Walsh, BA's chief executive, said that the A380's superior capacity would allow it to grow from its creaking Heathrow base, while its quietness—it spreads noise over only half the area that a 747-400 does on take-off and less than a third on landing—was also important. As one Airbus executive put it: “Willie would have had trouble explaining to the neighbours why he'd bought a noisier, dirtier aircraft [the 747-8] even if was a bit cheaper.” Likely destinations for BA's A380s include Johannesburg, Hong Kong and points in India and America's west coast, but not, for now, New York. And as Boeing quickly pointed out, at the same time as BA announced the A380 order, it also said it would buy 24 787s. Honours even.
Perhaps more worrying for Airbus, the BA order was the A380's first from a new, as opposed to existing, customer for the best part of two years. Airbus says that it is usual for orders to slow in the year or so before an aircraft enters service, as more cautious airlines wait to see how it performs. It also says that the 46 orders it has taken in the past year, bringing the total to 185, compares well with other aircraft at similar stages in their lives.
Delays on the line
The question that nobody can answer is how deeply the production problems that have assailed the A380 have affected confidence in the aircraft and its maker. The first delay was announced in June 2005, when Airbus confessed that delivery would be six months later than promised. Almost exactly a year on, another delay of up to seven months was announced.
News of the second delay knocked 26% off the value of shares in EADS, the parent company of Airbus, and led to the resignations of Noël Forgeard, its joint chief executive, Gustav Humbert, chief executive of Airbus, and Charles Champion, then in charge of the A380. The company's failure to provide more timely information about the scale of its problems also triggered investigations into the share dealings of executives and EADS board members. A report by the French stockmarket regulator has been sent to prosecutors.
The mood at Airbus's base in Toulouse is one of frustration rather than fear. But those senior managers who have so far survived both the resignations and a big overhaul of the once dysfunctional relationship between Airbus and EADS face an unwelcome distraction at the very least.
Part of the explanation for the catastrophe was the sheer complexity of the A380. The cabin wiring—more than 330 miles of it and over 40,000 connectors in each aircraft—caused problems because two incompatible versions of computer-aided design software were used. The Germans in Hamburg had one system, the French in Toulouse another. When the electrical harnesses came to be fitted in the forward and aft fuselage sections, many didn't connect with each other. Despite efforts to resolve this, it was decided in October last year that only by updating the computer-design tools would Airbus get on top of the problem. That meant a third delay.
John Leahy recalls that when airlines were told that not only would Singapore's first aircraft be delivered late, but that everyone else's orders would slip again, “they were stunned, speechless.” The reason was the need to deal with the work on two tracks. Although a new system for installing the harnesses was being developed, the first 26 aircraft would all need difficult and time-consuming rectification work. It will be another three to four years before production reaches its intended rate of four planes a month. Another consequence was that a freighter version would be delayed until at least 2014, which lost Airbus orders from both Fedex and UPS and raised its expected earnings shortfall up to 2010 to €4.8 billion ($6.8 billion).
Despite the setbacks, all due to the poor execution of industrial processes rather than design, it has not all been bad news for the A380. Despite rumours that it was overweight and struggling to meet performance targets, the indications are that Airbus has delivered a remarkable plane that, as long as they can fill it, will provide airlines with the step-change in operating economics they were hoping for. With reduced fuel burn from its Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or Engine Alliance 7200 turbofans, lower maintenance costs from its 25% composite airframe and its advanced avionics, Airbus claims the A380's cost per seat has come out at 20% below that of the 747-400.
Back at the gate
Another achievement is that despite the aircraft's size and weight, the A380 can take off and land on the same runways as the big Boeing, thanks to the efficiency of its wings. There is no need to build longer runways, although airports have had to spend heavily to make space for the plane's wingspan at departure and arrival gates—which must also be modified to allow upper-deck passengers on and off.
Above all, passengers stand to gain most. Stephen Forshaw, of Singapore Airlines, says that while meeting or exceeding noise and emissions targets was extremely important, the catalyst for ordering 19 A380s was the opportunity to provide its customers with more comfort and a better environment. “Keep it in mind that this is an aircraft—it has physical limitations and must meet economic considerations,” he says. “But we have been able to bring about a revolution in business class with four-abreast seating and much more personal space and privacy. Even in economy, there are two inches more legroom, extra seat width and larger TV screens. There will be 12 suites on the main deck which, with its straight walls, has a unique feeling of space. The plane is also remarkably quiet inside.”
Singapore believes that life for 747 operators, such as All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, faced with direct competition from airlines flying the A380 will be hard. Mr Forshaw adds: “A lot of customers are sitting back, but they'll have to move at some point. We're very confident this aircraft really is a game-changer and everybody will have to play by the new rules.”
If that is right, the prospects for the A380 may be rather brighter than either Boeing or Airbus's critics would like to think. Boeing's emotional investment in the 747 and the difficulty it has in coming to terms with the end of its long reign as the flagship of long-haul travel is understandable. But so far, Boeing has only received 20 orders for the passenger variant of its 747-8—all from Germany's Lufthansa, which is also buying 15 A380s and has options on more. Between an aircraft that is at the end of a 40-year evolution and one at the beginning of what is likely to be a similarly long career, there is no contest. The debate about hubs versus point-to-point flying is also a largely sterile one: one doesn't exclude the other and it will be horses for courses.
But it is harder to say whether the A380 will ever match the 747's commercial prowess. Its firm order tally of 185 aircraft to date from 15 airlines is respectable. But there are only seven more established 747 operators to sell to and existing A380 customers may take a long time to come back for more. Airbus now reckons the market for very large aircraft to be 1,665 by 2025, with 55% of the demand coming from the Asia Pacific region, some of it from new carriers. Cautiously, it predicts taking only 50% of the market, but it is reluctant these days to say how many aircraft it needs to sell to break even. Recently, Louis Gallois, EADS chief executive, admitted that the number is higher than a previous figure of 420 because of the slower build-up in production and the effect of a weak dollar.
However, even if the market turns out to be smaller than Airbus is hoping for, the A380 looks likely to dominate, if not monopolise, long high-density routes for years to come. And with time on its side, it might even produce a return on the money it has cost to put into service—nudging €20 billion according to some estimates. For airlines and passengers, the A380 should be nothing but good news. But for Airbus it will have been a long, bumpy and, at times, perilous ride.