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One Hundred Up - The A380 in commercial service
Wednesday 27th February 2013 at 16:09
The delivery and entry into service of 9M-MNF to Malaysia Airlines in March 2013 marks a significant milestone in the Airbus "Superjumbo" program as it will be the 100th A380 to enter commercial service. It has been five and a half years since Singapore Airlines' A380 9V-SKA became the very first A380 to enter service - on flight SQ380 between Singapore and Sydney in October 2007 - and so the 100 has come slowly for Airbus and for the airlines. But having put production and wing crack problems behind it, and having survived what some would regard as a close-call accident, Airbus is ramping up the pace of production of its double decker airliner and the next 100 are expected to come online much quicker than the first 100.
With 100 A380s in commercial service it is worth reflecting on the type's first five and a half years in service and what it has done for air travel.
Airbus Industrie started out as a cooperation between the French, German and U.K. governments in the late 1960s and its existence was formalised in 1970. European airspace manufacturers Aerospaciale, Deutche Airbus, Hawker Siddeley (later British Aerospace / BAe Systems), Fokker-VFW and subsequently CASA each took a stake and manufacturing share in Airbus. By 1972 the consortium had rolled out their first product - the short range, wide-bodied, twin-engined A300. A smaller, longer ranged derivative of the A300 - the A310 - followed. By the mid-1980s Airbus had a highly successful product range that also featured the highly successful short-range narrow-bodied A320 and had started work on its A330/A340 family that both went on to have significant sales success in the medium/long range wide body twin/quad-engined market. But, since the 1970s, the jewel in the commercial aeroplane crown was the long range, high capacity Boeing 747 and in the late 1980s Airbus set its eye on taking a part of that market too.
The A380 is born
Airbus' thinking around a high-capacity long-range airliner started out in secret in 1988. By 1990 Airbus was working towards an ultra-high capacity airliner capable of beating the 747's economics by 15% or more and by June 1994 thinking had progressed through a design featuring side-by-side fuselages towards a double-decker with the project initially known as the A3XX. Airbus formed a "large aircraft division" in 1996 and towards the end of December 2000 the board authorised the company to offer airlines a four-engined double-decker airliner, rechristened A380. The A380 would feature two full passenger decks and be capable of seating over 800 passengers in an all-economy configuration whilst beating the Boeing 747's economics by around 20%.
The design was frozen in early 2001 and manufacturing of the first prototype A380 started in early 2002. It took almost exactly three years for Airbus to complete the first A380 with rollout taking place in January 2005 and the type's first flight taking place amidst huge media coverage on 25th April 2005. Two and a half further years elapsed before the type's first commercial service in 2007. Almost unique to the type's production process (until the advent of the Boeing 787) has been the assembly of major components in several European countries - France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. after which the assemblies are brought to the A380 final assembly line in Toulouse, France by specially converted ships and road convoys. Thus far, the A380 has been offered in only one airframe configuration, although with several different maximum weights and a choice of two engine manufacturers - Rolls Royce with the Trent 900 and Engine Alliance with the GP7000.
The A380 has been beset by several production problems, each of which have slowed down production and delivery to airlines:
The use of different versions of computer aided design (CAD) systems in each location caused significant production problems for Airbus when it was found assemblies from different locations did not mate properly and, whilst these problems delayed a number of A380 deliveries, these problems have now been overcome.
Airbus seriously underestimated the time it would take to fit out the cabins of the A380s to it's customers' unique configuration. Interior outfitting initially took nearly twice as long as was expected and, even now, the complex integration of each airline's environmental systems, seats, entertainment and communication systems causes Airbus some issues.
Finally, the incident in which Qantas A380 VH-OQA had a major engine problem departing from Singapore that caused significant structural damage to the wing revealed tiny cracks in the wing structure of the A380. This resulted in a redesign of some A380 wing components and a subsequent slowing of production whilst Airbus certified the revisions and incorporated them into the production of new airframes.
Airbus no doubt hopes that the production problems that have beset the A380 are behind them and are now planning a slow production ramp-up over the next couple of years.
The A380 in service
Sales of the A380 have been slow, maybe not a bad thing given the production problems Airbus have had. Airlines have been cautious buying aeroplanes in the ultra high-capacity market as the number of routes such aeroplanes are viable on is rather limited. Ironically, rather than Boeing's ultra high-capacity 747-8i, it is the 787 and A350 that have arguably delivered the biggest challenge to Airbus and limited the A380's sales potential. Airlines are increasingly looking to provide lower capacity long-range point-to-point services (so called hub-bypass) rather than channeling huge numbers of passengers through a limited number of hubs. None the less, Airbus has secured a number of "blue-chip" customers for the A380 including global leaders such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Lufthansa, British Airways, Air France and the type's largest customer, Emirates Airline.
A380 economics have undoubtedly been a step forward for the airlines that operate the type - in-service experience has shown that the A380 has been more than capable of meeting the performance and cost expectations set for it with fuel-burn in particular being a few percentile points lower than predicted and promised. But it is in the cabin where the A380 has probably had the biggest impact. Almost everyone who flies on an A380 remarks on the spaciousness and quietness of the cabin and the double-deck fuselage has given airlines a unique opportunity to offer amenities to premium customers that were not possible on single-deck airliners. Staircases, enclosed suites, showers, bars and the ability to embark and disembark first and business class passengers seated on the upper deck separately from the customers on the main deck have all allowed airlines to offer significant differentiation for the customers that spend the most. Even after five and a half years the type entered service, many would-be passengers aspire to travel on an A380 rather than a conventional wide-body.
The A380 going forward
The order backlog for the A380 currently stands at around 150 airframes. With a slow production rate increase these 150 airframes will not take much more time to deliver than the first 100 by which time it is likely that a few more airlines will have been added to the A380 customer list. Airbus has progressively offered increased weights for the A380 airframe with several new high-gross weight variants now on offer and a stretched A380-900 variant still in prospect (although not yet committed). Even though every customer has so far opted for fairly low-density three - or four-class seating configurations, there is still the prospect of an all-economy A380 should Air Austral take delivery of the airframes they have ordered. Setting new standards in passenger comfort and economy, the A380 will be the largest aeroplane in the commercial airline world for many years and is likely to exhibit the liveries of further major airlines as the global airline market evolves.
Here's to the first 100 A380s - and may there be many many more.
Report by Andy Martin