WORLD AIRLINERS: The ups and downs of the largest commercial aircraft

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The fortunes of the largest commercial aircraft seem to swing year to year. In 2009, they represented a drain on operators because of low load factors, low yields and receding passenger and cargo traffic.

A year later, the industry is seeing the emergence of a limited number of high-capacity jetliners from desert boneyards and the delivery of new airframes, which are the subject of allegations that market distortions arising from financing structures disadvantaged European and North American carriers.

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Boeing is adding a fifth aircraft to the 747-8 test fleet. Picture: Boeing
This year - in which the pall of recession began to lift in the world's biggest economies - has been one of transition and turmoil for Airbus and Boeing's largest products. For Airbus, early production woes have given way to a more steady drumbeat of deliveries, with 14 A380 superjumbos handed over in the first nine months of 2010 and a forecast of 20 by the end of the year - double what the company was able to produce in 2009. There were 12 A380 deliveries in 2008.

Since the A380 first entered service in October 2007, 37 have been delivered to Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qantas and Singapore Airlines. These have flown more than five million passengers.

In May, Airbus executive vice-president of programmes Tom Williams said that the superjumbo's production was "rapidly maturing" and that out-of-sequence work on the company's final assembly lines was "constantly decreasing", with the level one-seventh of what it was in early 2007.

For January to November 2009, Airbus recorded a 50% reduction in outstanding work on its Toulouse final assembly, an 80% reduction in production drawing backlog, and a 40% drop in query resolution time. But despite this improvement, the A380 remains unprofitable for Airbus.

The company's chief operating officer John Leahy conceded in May that airlines "are making money with it; unfortunately, we're not, but we will soon".

On the other side of the Atlantic, Boeing's new 747-8F freighter made its maiden flight on 8 February, with captains Mark Feuerstein and Tom Imrich at the controls. This kicked off a planned 1,600h, three-aircraft flight-test campaign.

Of this, more than 400 flights, covering 1,100h, have been completed. However, as Boeing has put the new jumbo freighter through its paces - including a record 453,600kg (1,000,000lb) take-off for the 747 - technical issues have surfaced. This has prompted time-consuming troubleshooting and resolutions, and pushed first delivery of the freighter to Cargolux from late 2010 to mid-2011 under a delay confirmed in late September.

After increasing the test fleet to four aircraft in July, Boeing is set to add a fifth as part of its recovery plan.

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ISSUES
Four issues contributed to buckling the freighter's schedule. The first two - outboard main landing gear door vibration when flaps are fully extended, and a required change to nose-gear wheel well structure - have since been remedied. Time-consuming investigations and engineering revisions have been required by the remaining two issues: an underperforming inboard aileron power control unit actuator, which was found to oscillate given slow pilot input, and a structural 2.4Hz vibration at mid-weight near-cruise speed discovered during flutter testing.

The revised Nabtesco-built actuators have been handed over to Boeing and were in ground testing as of late October, while a technique dubbed the outboard aileron modal suppression system has been developed to dampen out the oscillation.

"We feel good," Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney says of the proposed fixes, adding that as testing on these solutions continues, the supply chain will be able to meet the new schedule for deliveries as well.

Boeing is optimistic that its struggles with the 747-8F will benefit the 467-seat passenger -8I version, with much of the technical risk being ironed out through work on the freighter. The passenger version is due to fly in late March 2011, which will begin a four-month certification campaign culminating in first delivery in the fourth quarter. That delivery, of the first flight-test aircraft, will be to a completion centre, which will undertake a VIP conversion for the Kuwaiti government.

The second test aircraft will be an -8I for Lufthansa. Boeing Business Jets president Steve Taylor says all eight VIP aircraft among 33 -8Is on order will be delivered to completion centres by the end of 2012, including five in 2011. Korean Air is the only other airline customer to purchase the new jumbo.

Airbus and Boeing continue to differ widely in their 20-year market expectations for their largest products, with estimates for large passenger and freighter aircraft deliveries diverging by more than 1,000 airframes.

Continuing its conservative estimate of the future large aircraft market, Boeing expects to deliver 720 aircraft between 2009 and 2029. Airbus, by contrast, forecasts 1,729.

Turkish Airlines is expected to make a year-end decision following an evaluation of the A380 and 747-8I, the first head-to-head order battle between the two since the September 2007 selection of the A380 by British Airways.

"Airbus is waiting for a paradigm shift in the marketplace, and that just hasn't happened," said Boeing vice-president marketing Randy Tinseth in July. However, Airbus disputes the characterisation, citing a sales balance between the A380 and 747-8 between 2008 and 2010 of 49 to eight.

Of the A380's 49 orders, 32 came from one carrier, Emirates. It is the largest single customer for the type, now accounting for 40% of the superjumbo's cumulative orderbook, which totals 234. Those 32 new airframes, the order of which was confirmed at Berlin's ILA air show in June, joined 58 already on order and will be delivered to the carrier by 2017, giving the Dubai-based airline a total of 90 A380s.

Emirates' chief executive Tim Clark has indicated the carrier's desire to acquire an additional 30 A380s once current space limitations at the airline's Dubai International airport base are alleviated. The carrier plans to relocate its operational hub to the new Al Maktoum International airport in Jebel Ali, a short distance from Dubai International airport.

Yet Emirates' rapid capacity growth - enabled by Airbus's A380s - may ignite a trade war between the airframer and the flag carriers of the European nations that comprise the consortium. Air France/KLM, Lufthansa and British Airways/Iberia have decried the use of European export credit financing as providing an unfair advantage to Airbus customers that compete directly on European routes.

Richard Aboulafia - vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group and a consistent critic of Airbus's superjumbo - says the company's product strategy is "subsidising the aeronautical rope that Emirates is using to hang European airlines" with the assistance of export credit, which is unavailable to European carriers, "whose traffic is Emirates' favourite lunch".

US airlines have levied a similar criticism at the US Export-Import Bank's role in financing Boeing 777s to Emirates as well. Emirates has dismissed the claims of the European and US airlines, but the row puts the carrier squarely in the sights of North American and European rivals, with Airbus and Boeing's largest products caught in the crossfire.

©flight