Getting on for three years ago (26 March 2004 to be exact) Boeing marketing supremo Randy Baseler made an interesting comment about the future of the A380. What he said was that the real make-or-break for the programme would be Airbus' success in securing follow-on orders from the original group of customers.
His point was that there were simply never going to be enough customers for the A380 based on the typical initial order of 10 or so aircraft. Not even including Emirates' 40+. So the crucial question would be whether or not the first wave came back for more.
I think it was a good analysis. Say Airbus had got 15 or so intial operators with about 10 aircraft then they'd be at 150 sales. Doubling that with follow-ons would give 300, which would at least have taken Airbus past breakeven.
So how does that look today? Well, the good news for Airbus is that finally two of the original customers have just added orders: Qantas firmed up another eight options to take its deal from 12 to 20; and Singapore Airlines took its order from 10 up to 19. Better still, Airbus CEO Louis Gallois says there are more such deals to come shortly.
But...a lot has changed since Randy's remarks. The programme delays have pushed the breakeven sales up to 420 - still a lot less than Airbus' predicted 750 sales, but alarmingly more than the originally envisaged breakeven of 270. FedEx, which I suspect Randy had more or less written off at the time, has switched sides. And the delays have also let the 747 emerge as a much more powerful competitor in its latter years than he can have possibly hoped.
In fact, the brutal truth, is that not only does Airbus need those follow-ons, but more than ever it also needs new A380 customers.
As an aside, the bit of the 2004 presentation that got more attention at the time was reported by us like this:
Speaking in London last week, Baseler said Airbus had claimed in 2000 that the A380's OEW would be 608,000lb. By 2002 this had shifted to 613,000lb and to 619,000lb last year. "In doing so, Airbus has acknowledged a weight problem. At this point in the A380 design process, a maximum take-off weight increase by Airbus would be clear evidence that this airplane design is on an uncontrolled weight growth track," says Boeing. It predicts the A380 OEW will be "closer to 630,000lb".
Richard Carcaillet, director of product marketing A380, firmly refutes Baseler's claims. "Boeing has had a long monopoly period with the 747, but frankly it's over. [Boeing] is so plain wrong that the airlines who have purchased the A380 will be having a good chuckle," he says. He says the 619,000lb is a "typical" OEW based on discussions with airlines. But the "spec" OEW is 596,000lb. "Weight at delivery will be very, very close indeed to the spec. Our launch customers are quite comfortable with that."
Airbus mostly doesn't use the OEW terminology these days - referring to manufacturer's weight empty (MWE) instead - but on its website it still quotes that 608,000lb figure and in briefings it still says the aircraft will hit its performance targets. We should know for sure later this year, but I think Randy will lose that battle (and, in fact, he may well be fighting a related one for the 787 by then.)