A380 Problems New Airbus worry: the demise of the superjumbo

With management in upheaval over forthcoming departures and supply problems delaying deliveries, the European aerospace company may have to kill its technological wonder.
Quelle: Bloomberg
Singapore Airlines rolled out the first A380.

It’s been nicknamed “superjumbo,” and is the largest passenger plane in the world. But the double-decked airliner may soon be consigned to the dustbin of history.

Airbus SE, the plane’s manufacturer, has cut back production of the aircraft to just 12 a year, and that may drop to just six, according to Fabrice Brégier, chief operating officer of Airbus and the president of Airbus Commercial Aircraft.

The fate of the plane may be decided by Emirates Airlines, which has ordered 142 of the aircraft and has been delivered more than 100 so far. The Dubai-based airline is demanding that Airbus make a long-term production commitment for the A380 before it will buy any more of the airliners.

If we cannot negotiate a deal with Emirates, I think I have no choice but to end the program. John Leahy, Airbus director of commercial sales

“Honestly, if we cannot negotiate a deal with Emirates, I think I have no choice but to end the program,” said John Leahy, a New Yorker who is retiring as Airbus’ commercial aircraft sales director after 30 years.

The superjumbo was conceived as a rival to Boeing’s successful 747 wide-bodied aircraft. The A380  was 40 percent larger than its rival, capable of seating 853 people in an all-economy configuration. With four engines, it had a range of 15,700 kilometers (9,756 miles), capable of flying from Auckland, New Zealand to Dubai, the second-longest passenger flight in the world (the first being Auckland to Doha, Qatar).

Like the needle-nosed Anglo-French Concorde supersonic transport, which used to fly between Europe and the US in a little over three hours, the A380 proved to be top technology with little market.

The superjumbo fell victim initially to the global financial crisis, with few airlines willing to risk the huge investment at a time when travel was down. Now the issue hurting sales is smaller, more efficient, two-engine planes such as the A320 and A350, which carriers prefer scheduling multiple times a day rather than one large flight.

The likely end of the A380 is just one of several challenges facing Airbus. It has a huge management problem, with Tom Enders, the CEO, departing the company next year and Mr. Brégier, leaving after the company’s board refused to confirm him as Mr. Ender’s successor.

With order books are brimming with 7,200 planes, the company should be popping champagne corks. But more than 90 percent of the orders are for the A320 model that has been an Airbus staple for over 30 years. A new version called the Neo could only be produced in small numbers last year because of problems at engine manufacturers.

Furthermore, the company suffered supplier problems that slowed down the introduction of the long-haul A350. Some 70 A350s were delivered in 2017, but the company wants to ramp up production to 120 a year. There also are plans to stretch the plane to 400 seats and add a new engine design that will make it competitive with Boeing’s long-haul workhorse, the 777.

In addition to the management upheaval, Airbus is mired in corruption investigations, especially sales of  military aircraft that were facilitated using intermediary sales agents who are widely accused of paying bribes to officials to win orders.

Handelsblatt has learned that Airbus is negotiating a settlement with Austria over the sale of 15 fighter jets. The company, which denies the charges of bribery, is nonetheless hoping to end the inquiry by paying €80 million ($98 million). But a second Austrian investigation by the government may not be so easy to resolve.

Markus Fasse writes about aviation for Handelsblatt. This article has been adapted into English by Charles Wallace, an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the author: [email protected].