One of the first A380s to take to the skies a decade ago will be taken out of service in a remote French airport next week, as the manufacturer Airbus hopes for a major order to allay doubts over its superjumbo’s long-term future.
An A380 launched by Singapore Airlines in 2007 will be parked at Tarbes airport in the Pyrenees by its owner, a German aircraft leasing company. According to Bloomberg, the firm will rent out the plane’s engines while it searches for an operator to take over from Singapore Airlines, raising the possibility that an aircraft that costs $432m straight off the production line could be scrapped.
However, a much-needed boost for the aircraft and Airbus could be imminent. The first major airline order in four years for an A380 is anticipated on Sunday after negotiations with the Emirates airline. Hopes are high at the Franco-German manufacturer that the start of the Dubai airshow will lead to the biggest purchase since the same airline ordered 50 A380s in 2013.
The partly British-built plane was once the ultimate status symbol for airlines, and seen as the best model to fly to increasingly congested major global airports. But its prospects have begun to look increasingly bleak, with Emirates propping up sales by making 142 of all 317 A380 orders to date. Almost two years have elapsed since the Japanese airline ANA bought just three A380s.
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Predictions of the A380’s demise have been made with increasing confidence since Airbus said in July that it would cut production again, from 12 to eight planes per year. Such an announcement will have stoked glee at rival manufacturer Boeing.
Airbus executives say the reduced production rate means the plane, which typically carries more than 500 passengers, will continue to be made for the next 10 years. British manufacturers contribute significantly: the plane’s enormous wings are made in Broughton, north Wales, while some A380s have Rolls-Royce engines – the single most expensive part of the plane at $46m each. Landing gear, tyres and some of the electronic systems are also made in the UK.
An Airbus spokesman would not comment on rumours of a fresh Emirates deal for up to 30 planes, but said the company was in discussions with new airlines, as well as existing customers who “would benefit from topping up their fleet”.
The sales chief at Airbus, John Leahy, is due to retire at the end of 2017 after 23 years in the job, with many expecting a swansong deal. The president of Emirates, Tim Clark, said Leahy was anxious to sell the airline “a squillion A380s” before he left. But succession planning has gone awry, with Leahy’s deputy no longer in the running to replace him.
Few buyers have come to the market, and even fewer for secondhand superjumbos. Last year, Malaysia Airlines gave up on selling off six A380s and instead refitted them as 700-seaters to take Muslim passengers to the annual Hajj pilgrimage. So far in 2017, orders have only been cancelled, with Air France deciding to buy Airbus A350s.
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While passengers have enthused about the doubledecker A380 for its relative peace, space and comfort, its economics have been altered by changing route networks. Smaller alternatives such as the A350 and the Boeing 787 now have similar range and fuel efficiency per passenger. Chris Tarry, an aviation industry analyst, said of the A380: “As a customer it’s a fantastic machine to fly on. But the key for any airline is having the right model and the right costs. In the time between having something on the drawing board and getting a new type into service, things change.”
Airbus’s superjumbo was designed when the definitive jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, was in its prime. Partly, aviation has been reshaped by more passengers flying direct to secondary airports, rather than via hubs, which the A380 was expected to serve. Tarry said: “The theory before was that you need a very large aeroplane to get the lowest seat costs. But then you also need large traffic flows to get the number of passengers to fill the seats. What is clear is that we now see a new generation of aeroplanes which offer equally low seat-mile costs – how much it costs to fly one passenger one kilometre – with fewer people on board.”
Now, single-aisle planes such as Airbus’s A321neo and Boeing’s 737 Max will have a range of more than 4,000 miles, enough to compete on long-haul routes and less of a risk for investors. Yet Tarry did not think the A380 was finished yet, even if only the patronage of Emirates continued to underpin production. “If you are in the Gulf and ideally placed to aggregate demand on routes from north-west to south-east – and increasingly from north-east to south-west – the economics changes.”
Last Friday, Emirates’ 100th A380 was delivered, and the airline’s chief executive, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, indicated he would be looking for more. Two days ago, for a Guinness world record, a team of Dubai police officers dragged one of Emirates’ 300-tonne A380s across the tarmac. Airbus will be praying for such continued levels of commitment in the Gulf.
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