ANALYSIS: A380 struggles to replace 747 in Asia-Pacific

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Although it has been five years since Singapore Airlines commenced services with its first Airbus A380, the type is struggling in the Asia-Pacific's legacy 747 replacement market.

At the recent IATA meeting in Cape Town, Airbus chief operating officer for customers John Leahy reiterated his view that demand for the A380 remains strong, and that US carriers will need to buy the aircraft to remain competitive against rivals from the Asia-Pacific.

In typical fashion, Boeing stated again that the world is moving to a point-to-point model, with the role of traditional bastion hubs declining.

"As competition around the world continues to evolve, you see hubs emerging in many different locations," said John Wojick, Boeing's senior vice-president for global sales. "That dynamic is going to continue to evolve all over the world and drives our 20-year forecast, which says yes, there is demand for large aircraft, but it's not as large as our competitor's forecast."

In the early days of the A380, the Asia-Pacific, with its vast cities and double digit air traffic growth, was seen perhaps as the biggest opportunity for the double decker. Indeed, Boeing's 747 enjoyed massive success in the region for nearly 40 years.

According to data from Flightglobal's Ascend database, there are 52 A380s in service with Asia-Pacific operators, compared with 108 747-400s and six 747-300s.

The A380 has just 41 firm orders from Asia-Pacific carriers, meaning that over half of the total A380s due to the region have been delivered. A380 orders for the region actually amount to 46 if the five aircraft ordered by collapsed Kingfisher Airlines are included.

Meanwhile, there are 10 747-8Is on order in the region - five each for Air China and Korean Air.

Ascend order data suggests that Airbus faces a particularly tough challenge replacing 747-400s on anything approaching a one-for-one basis.

The region's biggest remaining 747-400 operators are Thai Airways and Qantas, each with 16, as well as Korean Air and Cathay Pacific Airways, each with 15.

Qantas, for example, operates 16 747-400s, but has firm orders for just eight additional A380s.

Thai's fleet of 16 747-400s far outstrip its order backlog for two A380s. Thai, however, has firm orders for 10 777-300ERs, all of which will be delivered in the 2013-2014 timeframe.

Similarly, Korean's fleet of 15 747-400s outstrips its existing orders for four A380s. In 2014, it will also receive five 747-8Is and four 777-300ERs.

Cathay Pacific, long viewed as a prospective A380 buyer, operates 10 747-400s, but has yet to place an order for the superjumbo. Nonetheless, in August 2012 it converted 16 orders for the A350-900 to the larger A350-1000 variant, and placed orders for an additional 10 A350-1000s.

The next 10 years are likely to see major retirements of the 747-400 in the Asia-Pacific, but recent trends suggest that airlines could continue to view the A380 as a niche type, and choose to fill most of their high capacity needs with flexible, twin-engined aircraft such as the 777-300ER, A350-1000 and eventually the 777X.