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OPINION: Airbus lets head rule heart with A380 cancellation

Of all the days to be dumped, St Valentine's Day is probably the most painful. But prompted by Emirates cancelling most of its remaining orders, Airbus on 14 February finally let its head rule its heart, and said au revoir to commercial aerospace's biggest vanity project – an airliner more loved by passengers than operators.

With production due to end in 2021 – just 16 years after first flight – the A380 is likely to be outlived by the type it usurped as the world's largest airliner, the Boeing 747, which took to the air half a century ago.

Letting go of the thirsty quadjet has not been easy. There was much pride, as well as hard cash, invested in a programme that Airbus had once hoped would break the four-figure mark in terms of sales.

Outgoing chief executive Tom Enders reveals that Toulouse came close to terminating the superjumbo in 2018, but decided to give it another go. However, with continuing airline indifference to Airbus's game-changing promise for the A380, Emirates' expected decision was the death knell. Continuing to build the A380 into the next decade with an ever-shrinking backlog would have been financially insane, as Enders admits.

The changing of the guard at Airbus has also been critical in the timing. Although he was not part of the launch team for the A380, Enders has spent 14 years running Airbus or its commercial arm. Two other A380 champions, former Airbus commercial head Fabrice Bregier and veteran sales chief John Leahy, have moved on. Cancelling the programme at the end of the Enders era allows his successor, Guillaume Faury, to start afresh.

There is another factor too. The A350 – development of which would not have been possible without the engineering work that went into its bigger stablemate, says Enders – has given Airbus a stronger competitive position in the long-haul market than it had 15 years ago with the A330 and A340.

While Boeing has a strong hand with the 787 and 777, the A350 has given its European rival a credible offering at the top end of the widebody segment. Despite the blip of a likely Etihad order cancellation, Airbus remains bullish about its now-flagship programme, insisting it will break even this year and continue flying into the black next decade.

Although hyped as ahead of its time, the A380, as Enders also concedes, may have in fact come 10 years too late, missing the surge in long-haul mass travel in the last quarter of the 20th century that gave the 747 the nickname "Queen of the Skies".

Ending A380 production will break hearts, just as did the demise of Concorde, arguably another project that owed more to vanity than financial sense, 16 years ago. However, for Airbus, an emotional attachment to Europe's most ambitious aerospace project since the supersonic transport could no longer trump hard reality.

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