When the Airbus A380 entered service with Singapore Airlines in October 2007, it ushered in a new era for the world's airlines of the ultra-large airliner.
For Airbus it was crucial that when the revolutionary aircraft made the headlines during its debut - as it inevitably would - it was not for the wrong reasons. After the programme suffered lengthy production delays that resulted in the assembly process having to be reinvented, there were sceptics waiting to see if the double-decker would fall on its face when it began earning money.
Two years on since that debut, the 20 A380s in service with three airlines - SIA, Emirates and Qantas - have accumulated 75,000h, operated 8,000 flights and carried at least 2.5 million passengers. Air France joins the throng this month.
Flight International has spoken to all three early operators and the consensus is that the aircraft has delivered on its promise of heralding a revolution in passenger enjoyment and operating cost performance, but suffers niggling problems that have taken the shine off an otherwise outstanding entry into service.
"Despite a teeth-pulling two years through all the delays etc, this aeroplane is a peach," says Emirates Airline president Tim Clark. "Once you've flown on it you will not want to go [any other way] if you have a choice - which will make them feel very ill in Seattle."
HIGH LOAD FACTORS
All the operators echo Clark's view that the A380 has proved massively popular with passengers, evidenced by the fact that their fleets consistently fly at high load factors. But Clark points out that the downside of this is that "lose one, and you're in trouble".
The operators put the A380's passenger appeal down to a combination of the quiet and spacious cabins, high standard of in-flight entertainment and the giant's comfortable ride. "She goes through turbulence like a huge Queen Mary 2 on the North Atlantic in January," says Clark.
While Emirates was not the first to receive the aircraft, it is the biggest customer, with an order for 58 Engine Alliance GP7200-powered aircraft. It received its first 489-seater in July 2008 - a date that like fellow customers was subject to a series of reschedulings that pushed back its first delivery by more than two years from the original plan agreed at the time of the order.
The carrier now has five A380s in service and 10 more (with capacity increased to 517 seats through the deletion of the maindeck crew rest compartment) are due to be delivered by the summer of next year. "After that we have dates that remain fluid," says Clark.
SIA IN THE VANGUARD
Nine months before the first Emirates delivery, it was SIA that led the way as launch operator, taking its first of 19 Rolls-Royce Trent 900-powered A380s on 15 October 2007 and putting the 471-seater into service 10 days later between Singapore and Sydney. The airline had been due to receive its first A380 in the second quarter of 2006, but a six-month delay in certification was compounded by production woes that pushed first delivery back a further 10 months. This was largely due to the now infamous rewiring problems as Airbus struggled to get its head around the complexity of the cabin customisation process amid digital mock-up discrepancies.
"The first three months went almost flawlessly. We were breaking new ground everywhere. It was something everyone in SIA felt so proud of," says the airline's senior vice-president flight operations Capt Gerard Yeap.
Qantas took its first Trent 900-powered A380 in September 2008 and operates five aircraft in a 450-seat configuration. The airline's group executive operations Lyell Strambi describes its A380 experience as having been "exceptional, from both operational and customer perspectives. Expectations have been more than met."
SIA flew a single-aircraft fleet on a daily rotation between Singapore and Sydney until January 2008, when its second A380 arrived. That first airframe (MSN003) had a remarkable first two months without suffering a single technical delay or cancellation, says SIA senior vice-president engineering Mervyn Sirisena.
|© H. Gousse/Airbus
He concedes that the 10 months between certification and first deliveries gave all stakeholders breathing space to get on top of all the major issues. "When the aircraft was delayed we took the opportunity to work with Airbus and the OEMs to see what we could fix before service entry. What we couldn't fix we made sure we understood and were prepared for," Sirisena says.
He gives as an example the cartridges that deploy the slide rafts, which initially had to be replaced after only 70 flights until a redesign extended this interval substantially. With the A380 operating an intense daily rotation from the get-go, Sirisena says that the airline's marketing took a sympathetic view to scheduling. "They made a bit of a sacrifice by choosing a sub-optimal widow for the return leg from Sydney to give us enough time when the aircraft arrived in Singapore to fix defects and prep it for the next service.
"The aircraft would arrive at around 14:00 and was ready for the next service at 20:00. Every day we had a cut off at 18:00 when we had to declare service availability or not."
None of the operators have any issues with Airbus's support for the new aircraft. Clark - who is a particularly hands-on airline boss from a technical operations perspective, says Airbus has "an army of people in Dubai, supporting us" and that he speaks "directly" to Airbus boss Tom Enders about issues.
Sirisena points out that with the A380 being a "showcase, there has always been a very strong support presence from Airbus, although it has been scaled back from the 'meet-and-greet' level when it first went into service".
John Vincent, who was Qantas's acting executive manager engineering at the time of the interview, concurs on the airframer's contribution. "Airbus has provided, and continues to provide, a high level of support at all destination ports across our A380 network. Airbus specialists are on hand for all arrivals and departures and there is a substantial presence in Sydney, where the maintenance operation is based," he says.
"In conjunction with the various modification packages, Airbus and its suppliers continue to provide additional spare parts to facilitate parts update and upgrade. Technical data assistance has been of a high standard."
Vincent gives as an example the help Airbus provided to Qantas with the commissioning of the electronic log book. "A specialist was located in Sydney for several months that had access to the design and support functions in Toulouse," he says.