Airbus pitches higher seat-counts on A380

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Airbus is pushing denser configurations and higher payload capabilities of the A380 as it tries to jump-start sales following a weak performance last year.

The airframer sold only nine A380s in 2012 and has attributed the slow pace partly to uncertainty generated by the wing-rib bracket issue but also to the poor economic climate.

"I'm not in a panic mode," said Airbus chief executive Fabrice Bregier during a briefing in Toulouse on 5 June, adding that the type had "some good prospects" for this year.

Airbus's new promotional campaign, "Own the Sky", is intended to encourage carriers to take advantage of the A380 to defend their market and capture traffic rather than surrender it to competitors such as Emirates.

It forecasts that the number of cities with more than 10,000 daily long-haul passengers will increase from 42 to 67 in the decade to 2021.

The airframer points out that the A380 entered service as the global economy dipped, and is trying to convince cautious airlines that traffic growth will return.

"It's a mind change: don't think about how you fill the seats, it's all about 'do you have the seats'," claims senior vice-president of marketing Chris Emerson. "It's about [not being] the airline that's left behind."

He adds: "You don't order an A380 for six years from now."

A380 product marketing director Keith Stonestreet says the airframer is tailoring its baseline layout in line with trends that have emerged since the type entered service in 2007.

He says the aircraft was originally marketed with layouts that kept the first class cabin on the main deck, because customers were initially concerned about the impact of supersonic drumming from the airflow over the crown.

"We've always talked about a 525 seat aeroplane," says Stonestreet. "But it's not the best way to fly it."

Carriers were uncertain whether premium passengers might also be forced to transport luggage upstairs once boarded, if airports failed to adapt their infrastructure to include upper-deck airbridges.

These concerns have eased. The A380's current baseline configuration shifts the first-class and business-class cabins to the upper deck, and relocates the cabin crew rest to the rear from the lower fuselage, enabling the cargo capacity to rise from 10.6t to 14.7t.

While retaining 525 seats this layout raises the ratio of premium to non-premium seating. "That's how we're starting to see the aircraft being configured going forward," says Stonestreet.

Seat counts across the first 100 A380s to enter service averaged around 490 seats. But Stonestreet says: "Something we've seen over the five years is the aircraft are getting denser."

Airbus has rejigged the configuration further, returning the cabin crew rest area downstairs and supplementing the upper deck capacity with a rear economy-class cabin, to create a 558-seat layout with 11.4t cargo capability.

Executive vice-president for programmes Tom Williams says the "honeymoon effect" of a new aircraft has "lasted longer" on the A380 and that passengers are still willing to pay a premium to fly on the type.

He adds that the development of new weight variants - spanning maximum take-off weights from 490t to 575t - has offered a greater degree of flexibility to airline customers.

"The aircraft, intelligently used, opens up new business opportunities for the airlines," he says and, referring to the routes on which Emirates uses the type, adds: "We certainly didn't have Manchester in mind. It wasn't one of our destinations."

Airbus's baseline layout features 10-abreast economy seating. Williams says an 11-abreast cabin is possible but "some might feel it dilutes the brand too much".

He adds that while initial carriers opted for a "very nice layout", others have adopted a "hard-nosed" approach focusing on the number of seats. "I think there's a whole re-evaluation," he says.

Williams says the wing-rib bracket issue is "soon to be history". British Airways' A380s will have modifications performed before delivery while the first aircraft with the all-new wing will be delivered in 2014.

Stonestreet also points out that weight-saving efforts mean that the wings being fitted to current A380s in production are 500kg lighter than those built two years ago.

Airbus is encouraged by the decision by several customers to select both the A350-1000, the largest member of the twinjet family, alongside the A380.

Chief operating officer for customers John Leahy is standing by a forecast for 25 A380 sales in 2013, insisting that the type will be in demand from operators at slot-constrained hubs.

The airframer is aiming to break even at production level on the A380 in 2015. Bregier says it still has a "few slots, less than on one hand" still open for that year.

"We have an objective, in the long term, to deliver 25-30 aircraft per year. We are on track with this objective," he says. "We'll deliver 25 aircraft this year, [this will] probably be higher next year.

"It helps if we have a bigger number of aircraft. But we have a target to break even with the A380 in 2015 and I think we have the potential to achieve this target."