To concentrate on the Emirates A380 order saga in anticipation of writing large figures in Dubai air show headlines is to ignore the fascinating high-stakes poker game being played in the background – one involving numbers far greater than a couple of dozen aircraft and a few billions of dollars.
Emirates satisfied those eager for a splash story on the opening day with an agreement for Boeing 787-10s and the unveiling of a luxurious cabin revamp for 777s. It even managed some publicity by proxy as the event began to close, through the huge 737 Max deal reached by partner Flydubai – adding to a sense that Airbus had been left back at the starting gate as far as Dubai’s main carrier was concerned.
“I raise your 10 years”
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This is nonsense, of course, because air shows are transient and the absence of a showpiece is hardly evidence of failure when the airline in question has 100 A380s and has expressed, time and again, its devotion for Airbus’s double-deck flagship.
Emirates is passionate about taking the A380 and Airbus is desperate to sell the jet. From the outside, this looks like a shoo-in for both sides, with only the usual fine points to negotiate away.
That is why the real Emirates A380 story at Dubai is not a matter of how many, and how much, but about whether Emirates is calling Airbus’s bluff.
Because the airframer has consistently defended the A380, boldly dismissing doubts over its longevity, in the face of an undeniable absence of orders, and asserting that the aircraft, born into the darkness of a global economic slump, is yet to have its dawn.
By seeking a guarantee over A380 production for 10-15 years after completing its current orders – effectively the mid-2030s or beyond – the airline is asking Airbus whether the certainty it expresses to the press about future sales is echoed in its own boardroom.
At the Dubai show, Emirates president Tim Clark appeared both exasperated and baffled over the weak take-up by other airlines, and evoked Airbus’s own reasoning about traffic forecasts and airport congestion by suggesting that reluctant carriers are engaged in dangerously short-term thinking. Clark has promoted the A380 relentlessly and argues, convincingly, that the airline has marketed the aircraft as much as Airbus – perhaps even more.
Airbus and Emirates, for now, are the only two realistic players seated at the A380 card table. That much is obvious. Less so is which of the two has greater faith in the jet.