Not since Concorde has the passenger airline manufacturing business taken such a quantum leap as it has with the Airbus A380. And, like Concorde, the road to production for the A380 has been long, (longer than planned) and somewhat rocky with unexpected design problems and nasty economic developments, such as the plunge of the euro against the dollar.

Nevertheless, the first A380 of 19 was delivered to Singapore Airlines in October 2007; the airline is now operating its A380 between Singapore and Sydney.

“This is a landmark day for all those who worked so hard over the years to make it happen. We appreciate the confidence they have shown in Airbus and for staying with us through troubled times,” said Airbus president and CEO Tom Enders.

Airbus is not the only one imposing delays, new aircraft take time and Boeing is finding this difficult too, delaying the delivery of its 787 Dreamliner to the end of 2008.

CONCEPT TO DELIVERY

It’s been a 16-year journey for Airbus from concept to first delivery. In the 1990s, Airbus and arch-rival Boeing were both contemplating entering the 600-seat-plus very large commercial transport (VLCT) aircraft market. Both companies were also painfully aware that there was room for only one to be successful in such a market.

Called the A3XX concept aircraft in 1996, Airbus made the decision to build in 1999, and decided on a 525-seat base (800 seats in the all-economy design) double-decker powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or Engine Alliance GP 7000 engines. The resultant aircraft has, says Airbus, an operating range of 8,000nm coupled with a seat-to-mile cost that is 20% lower than the current largest aircraft flying.

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The A380 also, uniquely offers its customers the possibility in a new three-class layout, including economy class, with more space than ever before. In operational terms, Airbus says that over 70 airports worldwide will be capable of handling the A380 by 2011. The A380’s greater wingspan of 79.8m and therefore, more lift, allows the aircraft to take off and land on a 45m-wide, shorter runway; most major airports have 45m runway widths.

“Airbus says that over 70 airports worldwide will
be capable of handling the A380 superjumbo
by 2011.”

On the environmental front, noise has been reduced both outside and inside and the company states that the aircraft produces only 75g of CO2 per passenger, per kilometre.

A380 DEPLOYMENT

Long-haul flights are the obvious choice for the A380. However, with deliveries pushed back years most airlines are biding their time as to how the aircraft will be used and what technology will be deployed within it.

Qantas however, which is due to take delivery of its A380s from 2008 to 2015 has already announced that it plans to deploy a next-generation wireless entertainment system from Panasonic Avionics Corp. featuring wireless connectivity and in-seat access to email and the internet.

Qantas executive general manager, John Borghetti said, “Customers in all classes will be able to stay connected with in-seat email and internet access or using their personal laptops to connect to a wireless network.” Apart from the benefits of widescreen-delivered entertainment and wireless connectivity there will also be a pilot’s-eye view available via an external camera for take-off and landing.

On the operating side, and eventually planned to replace legacy paper-based systems, says Qantas, the airline will be issuing BlackBerry-like devices to customer-service cabin crew. Data-mining processes will make staff more accountable to Qantas’s back-end customer relationship management systems.

THE FUTURE OF THE A380

One swallow does not a summer make, and the jury is still out on whether Airbus can make the A380 a commercial success. Costs usually gravitate one way – upwards. And such has been the case with the A380 design and construction. Jobs have been cut and plants are to be sold as Airbus’s parent company, EADS attempts to shore up its losses.

“For the super rich, the A380 represents the opportunity to have a flying palace.”

Originally the number of A380s needed to be sold to break even was put by EADS at 270, this has since been revised to 420, reflecting the project’s troubled history.

Right now, the order book stands at 165 firm orders and a commitment to another 20 making 185 in all. EADS is on record as hoping to net 750 sales or more but at only 44% of the total orders required in hand there’s a long way to go.

More troubles were unveiled in January 2008 when Airbus’s parent company EADS dropped 8% of its stock value when Deutsche Bank predicted weaker commercial jet orders in 2008. This is not good news when one has a new aircraft to sell. However, the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and we will likely have to wait for the Farnborough Air Show to see how orders are going.

VIP VARIANTS

For the super rich, the A380 represents the opportunity to have a flying palace. This also may be an opportunity to boost sales when the airlines aren’t buying. To date, two A380s could be privately owned and operated. Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal was the first private buyer, announced in November 2007. The other possible buyer is currently anonymous but media have speculated that it could be Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

The price to the prince? Undisclosed. However, the basic model is a cool $300m and the fitting out to what will no doubt be very exacting specifications will be expensive. The prince, who already has a private Boeing 747-400 and has business interests in Euro Disney, hotels and banking will have 551m² of space for himself and his entourage.

The fitting-out will probably be done by Lufthansa Technik, which specialises in modifying aircraft cabins, “Aircraft for private individuals come ‘green’ (without a cabin) to our hangars to get a specially designed VIP cabin interior,” said Lufthansa Technik spokesperson, Julia Michaelis.

“The Airbus A380 is a great concept and the first and perhaps only one of its kind.”

Selling flying palaces could boost the order books a little, but whether Airbus would actually make much money from the conversions is debatable. Doug McVitie, managing director of France-based consulting company Arran Aerospace doesn’t appear to think so, telling reporters, “Airbus won’t make a lot of money on sales like this because these guys want everything done their own way, so with highly customised planes, you reduce by a large percentage the number of components Airbus could provide.”

To be fair to Airbus and EADS, even with their problems and unexpected market conditions, the Airbus A380 is a great concept and the first and perhaps only one of its kind. However, like Concorde before it, could this aircraft be a case of the right aircraft at the wrong time?