Airbus reached an important milestone for its A380 programme in February when the addition of Korean Air's deal for two more aircraft brought total firm orders for the giant to 200 aircraft.

The double-decker has had a bumpy ride over the past eight years to achieve this tally, with production problems resulting in an 18-month delay and contributing to the suspension of the freighter, costing 22 orders. But Airbus is satisfied with its showing so far, says head of A380 product marketing Richard Carcaillet: "The 200 orders from 16 customers is a good base. We are well on the way to occupying this market segment with a big majority compared with our competitor."

Launched in December 2000 to compete in a potential market over 20 years for 1,200 very large airliners, the (then) $10.7 billion programme secured its first firm contracts in March 2001 and a flurry of sales saw orders break the 100 mark two years later. However, the order rate has slowed since then as the birth pains combined with the traditional airliner sales cycle, where there is a lull in order activity during the transition through flight-test and service-entry phases.


While the A380's order pace since launch has been slower than that of the Boeing 747 four decades ago - the original Jumbo Jet reached 200 orders within four years of its 1966 go-ahead - the new "queen of the skies" is competing in a very different sales environment, says Carcaillet. "Remember that was the 'swinging 60s', while we had 9/11, which is part of the equation. But compared with the 747 at the beginning, we've had larger commitments and bigger votes of confidence right from the start from major airlines."

Qantas A380
 © Qantas

Despite the freighter setback, Airbus has maintained a positive order flow and destroyed any threat from Boeing's 747 - in the passenger market at least - and production is sold out until 2014.

Boeing ultimately sold over 1,400 of the original 747 (prior to the stretched -8 family), and there are around 400 747-400s flying in the passenger role. Airbus has already captured nine of the 16 leading -400 operators, including British Airways, which has the largest fleet. The A380's success in this hard-fought campaign dealt a crushing blow to Boeing's struggling 747-8I programme, which still has just one airline customer to its name.

"Our long-term forecast of 'open demand' predicts that just the existing A380 airline customers alone will have a need for 400 large aircraft over the next 20 years, in addition to the 189 A380s already on order," says Carcaillet. "The market will be bigger than today's 747 market."

A380 orderbook 

But despite its orders double-century, some analysts remain unconvinced that the A380 is a success: "It turns out that everyone, even Boeing, overrated the appeal of large airliners," says Teal Group's vice-president analysis Richard Aboulafia. "Since the A380's launch there have been 200 orders, plus about the same number of 747 orders [including freighters], and nearly 3,000 smaller twin-aisle jets. This is no longer a debate. The market has been quite eloquent."

Although Airbus has racked up a good spread of customers for the A380, it concedes that it has been more reliant than it had predicted on one customer - Emirates - which alone accounts for more than a quarter of all orders (58 aircraft). "You always have airlines like that, which play a pivotal role in an aircraft programme, like Pan Am did with the 747," says Carcaillet, who predicts that "definitely more than two or three airlines" will eventually have A380 fleets totalling around 50 aircraft.

But Aboulafia thinks the heavy reliance on Emirates and its local rivals should be a concern to Airbus: "One-third of the orderbook comes from a region that depends on very high growth rates yet has just seen a negative month and six slow growth months.

A380 cumulative orders

"Some Middle-East deliveries will certainly get stretched out. The current ramp-up schedule might soften further due to deferrals and production issues."

Airbus's chief salesman John Leahy said in January that, given the current environment, near-term demand for the A380 would be sluggish with only around 10 new orders coming through this year. With All Nippon Airways having suspended its large aircraft evaluation, it is difficult to see where any major new business will come from in the near term - for either the A380 or 747-8I.

Although Carcaillet insists Airbus is engaged with "some serious new prospects", Aboulafia believes the best it can hope for "is incremental purchases from existing customers. This is basically a two a month programme after they ramp up to deliver some, but not all, of the up-front orderbook."

The journey to 200 orders

Source: Flight International