In the build-up to this year's Paris air show, proponents of the ultra-large aircraft as the answer to the world's congestion problems have been hoping to witness a reawakening of sales for the Airbus A380 and Boeing 747.
Both companies were talking up their ultra-large aircraft at the IATA annual general meeting in Cape Town last month, but retain very different views of long-term market demand. Airbus remains convinced that the ultra-large aircraft market is as big as its product offering, predicting some 1,710 sales over the next 20 years. Boeing's estimate is less than half at 760 (both figures include freighters). However, supporting evidence of high demand in that size category has been thin on the ground.
According to the manufacturers' own numbers, from the beginning of 2012 (to the end of May 2013), airlines have placed just eight net orders for the A380 and 747. Gross orders over the past 18 months stand at 19.
In the past five years, 109 new orders have been placed for A380s and 747s. But cancellations have meant orders of the two big quad-jets have grown by just 75 aircraft. These are almost entirely A380 orders, as nearly all the new 747 deals have been offset by the cancellation of existing contracts.
This poor net sales performance for the latest iteration of the world's first jumbo jet has not stopped Boeing's sales chief from proclaiming (correctly, if somewhat disingenuously, given the longer-term comparison), that the 747 is currently outselling the A380. To 31 May, Boeing had landed three new 747 orders in 2013 (all freighters for Cathay Pacific), against zero for the A380.
Cancellations and deferrals are probably to blame for Airbus having some open delivery slots in 2015, but Airbus sales chief John Leahy insists that this availability is not evidence of a weakening appetite for the type. He is maintaining his target of 25 this year, as Airbus embarks on a new advertising campaign for the aircraft.
"There's a lot of demand for the A380," Leahy says. "The bigger the aircraft, the longer the sales campaign takes."
John Wojick, Boeing's senior vice-president for global sales, says that while the US manufacturer's view is that the 747-8/A380 market "is not huge", it will continue to compete with its 747 derivative for at least another 10 years. "We're committed to both the 747-8I and -8F well into the next decade, and you'll see more success in the coming months for both versions," he says.
"As competition around the world continues to evolve, you see hubs emerging in many different locations. 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," he adds.
"When you divide [Boeing's 760 aircraft forecast], it is about four airplanes a month and we're building two 747s a month and we think that is a sustainable market in this size category."
Leahy insists that carriers will need to turn to larger aircraft to handle climbing passenger numbers at slot-constrained airports.
Airbus missed its 2012 A380 sales target of 30 aircraft by some margin, securing just nine orders and Leahy accepted that the noise around the wing-crack issue had hampered short-term sales efforts. He said in September last year, "Whenever you have an issue like that it slows down discussions. People who are thinking about buying it say they want the aircraft coming off the line with the new wing."
Wing cracks are probably not to blame for the lack of an American customer for the A380. Leahy expects this to rectified, pointing out that US passengers have been exposed to the aircraft through foreign operators. He adds that US carriers will need the aircraft if they "want to be competitive, especially on the Pacific".
However, Boeing maintains that the drivers it says are redefining the shape of airliner demand are evidence of why the US market has been moribund for the big Airbus. Wojick points to the US market's multiple hub system as preventing Airbus from securing a customer for the passenger A380 variant there. "Why are there no A380 operators in the USA? Because there are so many multiple hubs. You can connect passengers from anywhere in the USA over probably 10 different hubs to most international destinations," he says.
The one certainty is that this long-running row about the true demand for large aircraft shows no sign of abating.