Farnborough Air Show

Skills shortage blamed for latest A380 setback

 - July 2, 2008, 12:05 PM

In commercial service for nearly nine months now, the Airbus A380 has proven itself perfectly capable of doing what its developers intended it to do–fly lots of passengers comfortably and efficiently. But for EADS and Airbus, moving into full production on time and on budget hasn’t proven so straightforward, and warnings from EADS chief executive Louis Gallois of further “risks” have served to only raise more questions about the true state of affairs within the program.

The latest delay for the A380–the fourth such hiccup since the project launched– boils down not to any particular technical problem or failure of suppliers, but rather a shortage of properly trained engineers to achieve the steep production ramp-up Airbus planned in 2006, according to Airbus CEO Tom Enders. “It’s frustratingly simple,” he said during a pre-Farnborough show media briefing. “Overall, we needed more time and resources than expected and although we initially thought this could be resolved through increased manpower and outsourcing, we have been hit by an industry-wide shortage of skilled labor, making it impossible to complete the work to the standards required.”

A program review completed earlier this spring assessed the schedule status at the juncture of transitioning from low-rate “individual” production–so-called Wave 1–to the full serial design and manufacturing process known as Wave 2.  The revised Wave 1 anticipates delivery of 12 rather than 13 airplanes, meaning one delivery scheduled for this year won’t occur until next year. Plans now call for Wave 2 to result in the production of 21 airplanes next year rather than 25. Those four deliveries scheduled for next year will happen in 2010. Airbus declined to offer detailed plans for 2010 “because it is no longer serious” to presume firm delivery dates beyond next year given the circumstances surrounding the latest delay.

“Clearly, accepting that we would miss our ramp-up targets was a difficult decision to make given its effect on next year’s deliveries, on the workload faced by our employees, on our reputation and most of all, on the customers affected, who have already shown a huge amount of patience and are rightly disappointed by the delays,” said Enders.

‘An Enormous Task’
While appearing at least equally disappointed, Enders nevertheless characterized the company’s latest moves as the most prudent course of action, given the threat to quality control maintaining the previous ramp-up schedule would likely raise. “To design, validate and implement a wiring solution for 13 aircraft as advanced and as large as the A380 is an enormous task,” said Enders. “Slipping that final Wave 1 delivery obviously had a knock-on effect on the initial phase of Wave 2, which was already under pressure given the scale of work required to introduce the new design and manufacturing processes for the standardized production ramp-up.”

Enders said Airbus would discuss details about the new plan and the further ramp-up and delivery slots in 2010 with customers “in the coming weeks.” But on whatever schedule Airbus and its customers ultimately agree, Enders assured it will not compromise the quality of the product.

“The A380 program is a long-term investment and if it takes us a bit more time at the beginning to ensure we deliver the best quality and the best performance, then that’s what we have to do,” Enders stated.

Although by no means mature, the airplane, by most accounts, has already built a relatively praiseworthy, if short, service history that Airbus would not want to jeopardize, particularly given the production disruptions and accompanying bad press.
By the time of the Technical Press Briefing in Toulouse in mid-May, Singapore Airlines had flown 4,000 flight hours during 470 revenue flights with four airplanes and had experienced what A380 vice president of customer services Philippe Muhn characterized as “manageable volume of technical events” related to such items as fuel pump connectors, spurious computer messages and galley cooling.

According to Airbus executive vice president and A380 program head Mario Heinen, the company had assembled and wired 17 aircraft, each in various stages of testing and delivery preparation.

One incorporated a completely new wiring installation design, devised after problems with the original forced the initial delays to the program. “We have installed wiring on the first aircraft with the completely new wiring installation design, and this aircraft is under testing,” said Heinen. “So we know this design works, we have demonstrated it. It is sound, it is robust, and we know what is in front of us…”

A Call for Realism
Still, Heinen conceded that “not everything is predictable, like building a car or building a washing machine, so I think we have to be realistic on this…The A380, with all its technology, with all its size, which works well, is discovering new terrain.”

In fact, two weeks after Heinen estimated the average delivery delay would last three months, EADS CEO Gallois said that they could run anywhere between three and five months. Nevertheless, Gallois refused to paint too bleak a picture. “A380 ramp-up is proceeding, so we are not facing the catastrophe of two years ago,” said Gallois. “But it is just not fast enough.”

As Singapore Airlines awaited delivery of its fifth airplane in early July, next in line stood Emirates Airline, which last month announced it would receive the first of its 58 airplanes on firm order on July 28. The Dubai-based airline said it expects to take delivery of five airplanes, all configured in a long-haul, 489-seat cabin layout, during its fiscal year ending March 2009. Emirates plans to launch A380 service to New York starting October 1, followed by London-Heathrow starting December 1 and Sydney and Auckland on February 1.

Qantas, which holds a firm order for 20 of the superjumbos, still expects its first airplane to arrive in Australia in August and two more by the end of the year.

The first A380 painted in Qantas colors emerged from Airbus’ Hamburg paint shop in early June, before flying to Toulouse for test flying and formal delivery to the airline. Qantas plans to place the airplane on a route between Melbourne and Los Angeles by October.

Airbus’s delivery schedules call for Air France, China Southern Airlines and Lufthansa to each take their first airplanes next year. “We have a good understanding [of the numbers]…but there are individual aircraft which are taking more time to develop, which will probably have slightly higher delays,” concluded Heinen. “We will work in the coming weeks with our customers to optimize their individual expectations and to arrange the delivery flow.”

At press time holding total orders for 192 A380s, Airbus recently lowered its projections for this year’s sales from 30 to 20 of the double-deck airliners in response to expected slower spending by the world’s now struggling airlines.