The A380's production problems gave SIA and Airbus time to conduct more tests
If anything positive has come out of the extensive delays to the Airbus A380 programme, it is that launch operator Singapore Airlines has had much more time to prepare in partnership with original equipment suppliers. And SIA is hoping that entry into service for the giant aircraft will be smoother than for any other.
The carrier's senior executive vice-president (operations and services) Bey Soo Khiang started working on A380 preparations soon after joining SIA in 2000.
He has had his share of ups and downs over the years, including weight issues with the aircraft and the many delays relating to production problems. But now that he is in the final stretch before the first A380 goes into revenue service later this month he is in an upbeat mood.
The first production A380, MSN003, is due to arrive in Singapore on 17 October following handover ceremonies in France on 15 October. It will remain on the ground at Singapore's Changi airport for most of the following eight days, before it starts its commercial career on 25 October with an inaugural flight to Sydney, for which seats have been sold through a charity auction. The return flight the following day will also be for charity, before the aircraft enters revenue service on 28 October. From then on the ultra-large airliner will be operating one daily flight between Singapore and Sydney.
The 10-day period between delivery and entry into service is short, given that the A380 is an all-new aircraft larger than anything else in scheduled passenger service. That is in part due to the delays in the programme, which have allowed for much more intense testing of systems and many more operational trials at airports.
"Because it is a bigger aircraft, from the very beginning we focused quite a bit on improving the reliability in terms of dispatch reliability," says Bey.
"Our pitch to Airbus is that we've got 471 passengers, so any delay is going to be a nightmare for us in terms of handling them, finding the hotel rooms, and so on and so forth. So we approach it on a zero AOG [aircraft on ground]-type of approach and we worked out what we call maturity testing programmes for various key components. Our engineers went through every single system with Airbus, looking at their system designs and looking for single modes of failure, single points of failure, and worked with them to ensure there are redundancies - and on top of that we insisted on a maturity testing programme. It started from 2001, so whenever a component or system comes on line, Airbus will start the maturity testing programme.
"Obviously by virtue of the extended time that we have had we collected more results, and improvements are being put in by Airbus to enhance the dispatch reliability. So hopefully that gives us better performance from that angle."
He adds: "Our philosophy is that we cannot have a $200 million or $300 million aircraft sitting around doing nothing for an extended period of time, so obviously we have looked for solutions to see how to shorten that period from aircraft delivery to aircraft entry into service. Whatever we could do up front, we will do it up front."
The 10-month gap between aircraft certification and entry into service has also allowed for much more airport compatibility testing. Much of it has been on development aircraft, which have been to Singapore several times, including for extended test periods at Singapore Changi airport's new Terminal 3, which opens next year. And A380s have been flown to other airports where SIA will be operating its new aircraft.
The delays have also helped SIA tweak its in-flight product. The programme delays led to new in-flight offerings, originally planned for the A380, instead being introduced on Boeing 777-300ERs, the first of which SIA received late last year. Changes have incorporated all-new economy, business and first classes, with new seats, cabin configurations and in-flight entertainment systems. The economy and business classes on its A380s will be similar to those on its 777-300ERs, but first class will be completely different and will be called "Singapore Airlines Suites" class.
Bey says that going first on the 777-300ER has allowed the airline to make changes based on passenger feedback. "Fortunately or unfortunately, however you look at it, the business class seatand economy seat and IFE system were all delivered on the 777-300ER ahead of the A380. So we have had some experiences with it and we have got some feedback, so that is a good thing," he says.
"We are putting in the improvements on the A380, so hopefully we will see a better product from that perspective, in terms of negative feedback on whatever seats we have - which are not many, by the way. So far we haven't heard much [negative feedback] about the economy class, there has been a bit of negative feedback in terms of seating comfort in business class. We have retrofitted some improvement in the cushions and all that, and the response so far is very positive about the improvements, so it is going to make it an even better seat bed for us."
SIA was originally due to take delivery of its first A380 in March 2006 and negotiated in its contract to receive the first four production aircraft. Original plans called for the second customer to take delivery of its first aircraft around six months after SIA put its first into service, but that has been stretched to around 10 months, giving SIA an additional marketing advantage by being the only operator for a longer period. SIA originally placed firm orders for 10 A380-800s powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 900s and late last year ordered nine more.
The airline will initially only use its first aircraft for Singapore-Sydney turnaround flights, and Bey says it will be flying around 16h a day with just under 2h on the ground in Sydney.
SIA's second aircraft is due to arrive in January, followed by the third in February and the fourth in April.
Bey says the airline has yet to decide whether to offer A380 services between Singapore and London once the second aircraft arrives, as it will not be able to provide a daily service, and instead may wait until the third is introduced. He adds that A380 services to Tokyo may start once the fourth aircraft arrives.
ALL SEATS FOR SALE
When Virgin Atlantic Airways took delivery of its first Airbus A340-600, the carrier initially sold only the same number of seats as for its smaller A340-300 in case of dispatch problems. But Bey says that SIA will not be doing that with the A380, and instead will be selling all seats from day one. Its A380s will have 471 seats, with 12 in "Suites" class, 60 in business class and 399 in economy. By comparison, most of SIA's 21 Boeing 747-400s seat 375 passengers, with 12 in first class, 50 in business and 313 in economy.
Bey says there is no reason not to sell all seats from entry into service. "Our approach is do the best to make sure nothing untoward happens, which we expect and every passenger expects of us. We have to work all the processes to make sure that it happens. For instance in the initial period of introduction we have got Airbus people sitting together with our people, with Rolls-Royce engine people, at a control centre here looking at the aircraft 24h a day. So when it is flying from Singapore to Sydney it will be looked at very carefully, and if there are any messages that tell of any faults in the aircraft systems, it will be looked at in detail here.
"Together with Airbus we insisted that there be spares and tools and equipment in position in Sydney with a group of expertise there as well. It is not only Airbus but even our IFE system vendor, Panasonic, so that the idea is that we are really exploiting technology to pick up whatever error messages come on board and get it ready to be fixed the moment the aircraft lands."
Cockpit crew training began in June and so far 32 SIA pilots have been trained on the A380, having been sent to Airbus facilities in four batches of eight. By the end of the year it will have 50 pilots A380-trained.
SIA has already taken delivery of a Thales-made A380 full-flight simulator, which has received interim Level C approval from the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore. Full Level D certification is expected next year after more flight data becomes available.
Bey says cabin crew have also already completed some ground training and the period between delivery and service entry will be used to train flight attendants on the actual aircraft in Singapore.
He adds that personnel who have been selected to operate the A380 were not chosen because it is a particularly special aircraft, as it is "supposed to operate like an A320, so in terms of complexity it is not very different from other aircraft".
He adds: "We train captains in SIA to be able to fly all sorts of aircraft, so we don't pick special people for the A380 because that is our philosophy. People who go to the A380 are based on availability and whether they have been on the original fleet for too long and therefore need a change, and that is about it," he says.
Looking back after so many years of A380 preparation work, which started soon after the carrier announced its commitment to the then-A3XX in September 2000, Bey hopes the programme delays will soon be forgotten.
COPING WITH DELAYS
"The delays are a fact of life - we cannot wish them away. When you put things in perspective, the A380 is a brand-new aircraft from paper to reality, and a delay of 18-24 months, as we have suffered, doesn't compare badly with other aircraft types, which we have experienced before," says Bey.
"For example, the 747-400 was delayed by almost 18 months as well, and that is just a derivative, not a brand-new aircraft. From that perspective Airbus will have done wonderfully well if there was no delay. Given the situation, there is nothing much to really complain about."
Source: Flight International