A distant destination

This article first appeared as a Comment in the 9 July 2013 issue of Flight International.

It no longer drops jaws as it did when it sailed the skies in quiet splendour over the 2005 Paris air show, but the A380 remains a sight, even as a workhorse serving close to 40 airports around the world. That Airbus took a huge gamble pushing the limits of aerospace engineering with its double-deck transport has never been in doubt. Unfortunately, fortune does not always follow the brave and – six years after service entry – the A380 remains an unproven commercial success.

That is why – after a barren six months – last week’s high-profile arrival of the superjumbo at long-time Boeing 747 operator British Airways, together with a tentative commitment at Paris from Doric Lease for 20 of the type, will come as relief in Toulouse.

Airbus’s John Leahy spins the A380′s orders dearth as a good thing: falling backlogs mean airlines put off by long waiting times during production build-up might now make their move. The airframer remains convinced demand for very large aircraft or VLAs (it lumps the 747-8 in that category too) remains around 1,700 units, with the A380 taking the lion’s share.

Airbus has the consolation that the rival 747-8 is faring much worse, both in passenger and cargo guises. But Boeing never suggested VLAs were more than a niche market.

So how does Airbus get from having delivered or taken firm orders for little more than 260 A380s to its four-figure promised land? With a few exceptions – Cathay Pacific being one – most of the blue-chip intercontinental airlines have either rejected the A380 in the medium-term or (aside from Emirates) committed in relatively modest numbers.

Laws of physics work in Airbus’s favour. Demand for air travel will continue to expand faster than slot capacity, particularly at the big hubs, forcing airlines to increase the size of their widebodies or lose business. In rapid-growth markets, such as China, VLAs may even prove necessary on certain point-to-point, medium-haul routes, as the 747 has for decades in Japan.

Once touted as an ocean liner at 35,000ft – delivering such in-flight delights as showers, shops and casinos to long-haul passengers – the superjumbo may end up the ultimate mass-transit air-bus.

But even so, it is hard to see the A380 attaining the success of the 747 in the last three decades of the 20th century. The industry is bigger and the world smaller since then, and airlines have more choices too. For Airbus, a thousand orders seems a long way away.

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