Having promised so much and letting its A380 launch customers down so dismally with the news of serious program delays, Airbus is understandably cautious in its prognosis for the super-large airliner’s immediate future. All the talk in press briefings before the Paris Air Show concentrated on achieving “maturity” and “sustainability” for the program. But in reality, the A380 program appears back on a much surer footing than it was a year ago and the company is slowly rebuilding its shattered self-confidence as it prepares for first customer deliveries in October.
Airbus’s caution is exemplified by the fact that it is resisting the temptation to parade the first customer aircraft in its Singapore Airlines livery because it is currently being upgraded to the latest production specifications. But it has two other A380s on display here at Le Bourget this week.
So given the progress that has been made in getting the troubled program back on track, is there some scope for making any of the delayed deliveries earlier than anticipated? Evidently not, according to Mario Heinen, the understandably conservative A380 program executive vice president.
“Well, of course, we dream of reducing delays but today we are following a very meticulous plan based on the situation in June 2006 when we realized that the problems were unavoidable,” he told Aviation International News. “We have developed a plan that is sustainable with some opportunities and risks. The plan is robust and there is no significant scope for improving delays, but we will see in a year’s time when we have more experience installing wire bundles.”
It was the serious discrepancies in the way various sets of system wiring are installed on the final assembly line that were the main cause of the delays that Airbus confessed to in May 2006. At the core of the problem was the fact that different and incompatible software had been used by engineers working in Airbus’ facilities at Toulouse, France, and Hamburg, Germany–an error that forced manual redrawing of installation plans for the wiring harnesses.
Six months after achieving simultaneous European and U.S. certification in mid-December 2006, the seven A380s built to date have flown more than 3,000 hours. The program team has successfully completed route proving flights at the aircraft’s maximum takeoff weight.
According to Heinen, all the program recovery measures agreed to last October have been implemented. The main elements of this plan included:
• Redesign and adaptation of the digital mock-up unit for airframe sections 13 and 18 by a dedicated transnational team,
• Restructuring Hamburg’s engineering and manufacturing teams into a single, process-orientated organization,
• Completion and recovery of electrical harness installations in two parallel streams and an end to the inefficient practice of transferring outstanding work within the industrial flow, and
• Establishment of an integrated team covering both the Hamburg and Toulouse final assembly lines (involving the co-location of 200 engineers).
The goal of Airbus’s hastily reshuffled management team was to achieve a sustainable recovery and production ramp–a mission that Heinen said has been accomplished. He said plans call for the European airframer to deliver four or five A380s each month by 2010.
In mid-April, Airbus attained an important benchmark in its production recovery process when, for the first time, it achieved power-on with a full electrical harness on one of four aircraft under assembly for Emirates Airlines in Toulouse. “This was the first aircraft with complete final wiring before reaching station 30 of the final assembly line, where we normally do a comprehensive system check,” explained Heinen. “This shows that we can stop doing outstanding work beyond this point–which is an important event.”
At the time of Airbus’ annual technical press briefing in late April, four SIA aircraft also were being worked on in Hamburg (including the first with completed cabin furnishings), as well as three aircraft for Australian flag carrier Qantas.
All of these A380s are powered by Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. Meanwhile, the version of the four-engine widebody that is to be powered by the rival Engine Alliance GP7000 powerplant is due to complete its certification by the end of this year. Certification flight tests are scheduled to be completed by September, followed by technical route proving and operability testing.
In addition to all the hard work being done to fix the serious problems in the A380’s production process, much of this year has been spent on flight trials aimed at ensuring that the aircraft is as operationally mature as possible when it enters commercial service. This has entailed a demanding schedule of “airline-like” operational testing that has included three trips and 71.5 flight hours logged during March with Lufthansa–including almost simultaneous landings on the east and west coasts of the U.S. Airbus has also completed the preparation of flight operations documentation, all of which is available digitally for its customers.
Another important issue still to be resolved is the vexed question of wake vortex separation requirements that the International Civil Aviation Organization will impose for aircraft flying behind the A380s. Last October, ICAO suddenly indicated that it intends to increase the wake turbulence separation minima required for aircraft operating near the new high-capacity transport.
Heinen explained that the manufacturer is about to perform trials in which it will fly smaller A320 twinjets into A380 vortex and will measure any resulting turbulence with laser instrumentation. It aims to send its proposed separation limits to ICAO by the middle of September with the understanding that the aviation body will issue a revised policy in November.
Can A380 Keep Its Sales Momentum?
With customers still fuming at delivery delays and Boeing’s rival 787 airliner selling like proverbial hot cakes (500 orders and rising), you might have thought that this would be a discouraging time for the A380’s senior salesman. But John Leahy, Airbus’ irrepressible chief operating officer–customers, fully expects to meet the commitment he has made to the company’s board of directors that this year he will add at least 20 new orders to the troubled program’s sales ledger.
“I am talking to four or five operators who between them need more than 20 aircraft, and they all need slots at hub [airports],” said Leahy. He still refutes the claims by the maker of the smaller 787 that today’s carriers are more concerned about bypassing hubs with equipment that can offer cost-effective long-haul, point-to-point connections. “Half of the world’s fastest growing city pairs involve a hub at both ends. This has been true over the last ten years and we expect this to continue,” he said.
One factor that has surprised Leahy is that not one of the 14 customers for passenger-carrying versions of the A380 has canceled their orders over the program delays. “All of them have the [contractual] right to walk away and I expected one or two would,” he said. “They are mad and want to talk about damages but they don’t want to give up their [delivery] slots.”
One market segment that has not stayed bound to the A380 are the freight carriers, with UPS having decided to abandon its orders on being told that it would face the longest of the delivery delays. Last year, the Airbus board decided to sacrifice freight customers to make up for lost time in deliveries to passenger operators, in the process freeing about 1,500 engineers to troubleshoot the production crisis. But Leahy insisted that the A380 freighter program has been merely “interrupted, not canceled.”
Last month, the Airbus sales team took an aircraft to India to demonstrate it to both flag carrier Air India and newcomer Jet Airways. The A380 will be making several round-the-world trips between now and early next year and these will include marketing-driven visits to both the U.S. and Japan.
Even during the annus horriblis that was 2006, Airbus managed to attract nine new A380 orders from Singapore Airlines and eight more from Qantas. “I still believe British Airways will come to the party sooner rather than later,” predicted Leahy. The next available delivery positions are in 2011 and by then Airbus expects the new generation jumbo to be carrying fare-paying passengers to more than 50 airports worldwide.
A380 Changes the Face of Crew Training
Airbus has developed a new approach to crew training for the A380 aimed at rationalizing the way they deal with procedures and malfunctions. For instance, it has analyzed more than 1,110 sensed and unsensed messages from the aircraft’s electronic central aircraft monitoring system and has been able to combine them with items from the operating manual, reducing the number of procedures by more than half, to 510.
Pilots are having to learn how to complete their tasks in the A380’s entirely paperless cockpit environment. Airbus has had to dedicate a whole day of training to the aircraft’s electronic logbook.
“We have taken a new approach to training, which we will be bringing to the other aircraft programs,” said Xavier Lesceu, director flight crew training policy.
There are already two full-flight simulators in Toulouse and others are now being built. The simulators will gain level-D certification in 2008 and, while operating at the current level-C, they cannot yet provide zero-flight-time qualification. Beginning next year, the A380’s head-up display will also
appear in the simulators.