Sunday, March 13, 2016

Airbus A380 (Part I): the Aircraft, Market Forecasts, and its History

By: John Walton / Published: March 8, 2016

Eight years and five months since it entered into service, the Airbus A380 is at a crossroads. Airlines that took early delivery of the superjumbo are approaching the point where it may make economic sense to replace the aircraft, particularly earlier aircraft in the production run. In the context of a white-hot market for next-generation large twinjets, is there a future for the A380 — including the notional re-engined A380neo and stretched A380-900?

In this three-part series, AirwaysNews will cover: the future market forecasts for and service experience with the A380; the constraints on the aircraft; and its evolving and future passenger experience.

The A380 turns heads wherever it flies. Image: John Walton

The A380 turns heads wherever it flies. Image: John Walton

Thirteen airlines currently operate the A380: Air France, Asiana Airways, British Airways, China Southern Airlines, Emirates Airline, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways International.

Japan's ANA is expected to become the 14th operator after an order placed in January. Iran Air might also join this exclusive club if the Memorandum of Understanding for a dozen aircraft becomes a firm order. On the other hand, Virgin Atlantic order for six A380s has been deferred until 2018 while Air Austral plans to cancel its order for two of the type.

The variety of configurations onboard the A380 is impressive, with anywhere from two to four classes of service spread over the two decks, plus first class showers, multiple types of inflight bars, passenger lounges, and three-room suites.

Inflight bars are popular with passengers. Image: Korean Air

Inflight bars are popular with passengers. Image: Korean Air

It certainly has a reputation for being among the most comfortable aircraft in the sky, thanks largely to the wider economy class seating its cabin diameter affords, together with the decision by most A380-operating airlines to make the superjumbo their flagship, with commensurate flagship products on board.

Yet the A380's future hinges on a number of factors, many of which are not in the control of Airbus or even its airline customers. This isn't a situation with which either is unfamiliar: look back to the Airbus A340, which arrived as a longhaul aircraft just as ETOPS took off, and its A340-500 and -600 variants, which entered production just before the early 2000s downturn in aviation and the late 2000s oil price rises.

Wildly differing market forecasts for the VLA sector

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Airbus — which has a credible proposal for the Very Large Aircraft (VLA) market — forecasts more than double the number of VLA required over the next twenty years by the global market than Boeing, whose 747-8I has been a disappointing flop (disappointing not least because it is a beautiful aircraft), which has not been redeemed by the early promise of the 747-8F in a depressed air cargo market. Airbus says 1200+ VLAs will be required in the passenger market alone, Boeing says 540 including freighters, and the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Yet much as the A340 lost out in the context of the rapid performance improvements and ETOPS regulatory loosening of twinjet aircraft, the external factors affecting the A380 are both positive and negative.

A380 at PAS

Airbus' A380 draws passengers, but will it draw airlines? Image: John Walton

On the one hand, liberal aviation policies in the UAE have enabled Emirates' meteoric rise and staggering investment in the A380 as a key spoke of its super-scaled global network. On the other, the protectionist response to the three Gulf carriers does reduce the market for very large aircraft.

New twinjets like the Boeing 777-9 and Airbus A350-1000 (and even the mooted A350-8000) are clearly nipping at the A380's heels. But in the context of modern airliners' entry into service, will they draw more customers than the superjumbo?

Eight years of successful service has eclipsed flaws

Passengers are fascinated by the A380, with the strangely graceful "whalejet" still turning heads when it flies overhead or taxis past, and as a halo product its introduction into service remains unbeatable in pure passenger pulling power. Even a dramatic midair uncontrolled engine failure and two more systematic manufacturing issues haven't dampened the enthusiasm.

Early issues with wing rib manufacturing and production, where a new aluminium alloy used for the construction of internal structures in the A380's mammoth wing assemblies, together with problematic production methodologies, led to cracking problems, have been solved by changing the alloy and the way of working, together with a refit programme for affected aircraft.

Despite initial production issues, the A380 has proven itself to be a reliable aircraft. Image: John Walton

Despite initial production issues, the A380 has proven itself to be a reliable aircraft. Image: John Walton

Similarly, a problem with microcracks in the door seal assemblies leading to pressurisation issues (most dramatically seen in a diversion to Azerbaijan) has been resolved with the usual system of repairs and inspections.

Even the shocking QF32 incident, which occurred just over five years ago, where one of the aircraft's engines suffered an uncontained engine failure on departure from Singapore, was rescued by a combination of safety-focussed design and an enormous amount of skilled flying by experienced Qantas pilots.

RELATED: Black Swan Event: Interview with Captain Richard de Crespigny—Part 1 / Part 2 / Part 3

There are constraints to airline demand for the A380, of course — limits to flights, limits to passenger numbers, and limits at airports — but the demand for the aircraft from passengers certainly isn't one of them.

jwJohn Waltonan international journalist, specializes in cabin interiors, seating, connectivity, and premium class service. A keen analyst of how developing tools can be applied to aviation news, John is at the forefront of social media in the aviation sector, When not at the keyboard, John lives out of a suitcase, and adds languages to his "I speak this enough to get by while traveling" collection. John welcomes email from readers and industry insiders to, and discussion on Twitter: he's @thatjohn.

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