Farnborough Air Show

Airbus, Airlines Happy With A380

 - July 13, 2014, 9:00 AM

It might seem only a year or two since Airbus launched the A380 and just months since the mighty, double-deck behemoth entered service, but the European manufacturer has delivered more than 130 since operations began, almost six years ago, in October 2007. The aircraft, which typically accommodate about 500 passengers (depending upon customers’ cabin configurations), have an average daily use of more than 13 hours, says Airbus. Of the 324 examples that had been ordered by late June, the backlog of 192 includes 20 booked this year.

Scheduled to appear at this week’s Farnborough Airshow is the first A380 for Qatar Airways–a rare airline exhibitor that is unashamedly conspicuous (Chalet C28). In fact, with it planned to have Airbus show at least three aircraft wearing its distinctive grey-and-maroon livery (the A380, an A350-900–the fourth flight-test aircraft–and an A320, and for Boeing to present a fourth, a 787-8) here at the show. Like some early operators, the Gulf-based airline has seen completion of its initial A380 delayed by problems with buyer-furnished cabin equipment. For instance, much of the customized 517-seat, first-, business- and economy-class interior was configured by Qatar Airways’ in-house designers.

New A380 operators this year are British Airways and South Korea’s Asiana. Also expected to be operating the model by year-end are Abu Dhabi-based Etihad, Qatar and possibly Japanese carrier Skymark.

Airbus is keen to quote operators’ experiences with A380 economics and profitability. Chief operating officer-customers John Leahy said streamlining service could increase revenue yield and fleet flexibility. For example, on its London-Los Angeles route British Airways (BA) has replaced three daily Boeing 777 flights with a pair of A380 flights. This has resulted in 19 percent lower trip costs, 5 percent more premium seats, 7 percent fewer non-premium seats, and 1 percent fewer seats overall, while releasing a valuable pair of slots at each airport.

Very Profitable

Leahy quoted Emirates Airline president Tim Clark as saying the A380 is the UAE operator’s most popular aircraft and is “very profitable.” At the end of this year, Emirates expects to follow BA’s example by replacing Boeing 777-300ERs with A380s on routes from Dubai to Houston and San Francisco to offer additional cargo and passenger capacity.

According to Airbus strategy and marketing executive vice president Dr. Kiran Rao, on Paris-New York flights, Air France-KLM has noted savings of 18 percent total cash operating costs per week and 17 percent cash operating cost passenger savings after using 538-seat A380s to replace four-engine A340-300s and 777-200ERs, respectively. The replaced aircraft each are configured for about 271 passengers and the move is said to save the operator over $13 million in cash operating costs annually.

The airline cost savings come as the manufacturer reports that incremental innovation on the A380 has reduced fuel burn: a 1-percent gain has arisen from optimization of wing twist, while improved efficiency has come from the GE/Pratt & Whitney Engine Alliance GP7200 and Rolls-Royce Trent 900 powerplants, according to programs executive vice president Tom Williams. A reduction in aircraft weight also has been accompanied by maximum takeoff weights increased to around 575,000 kilograms (about 1,265,000 pounds) that endow the aircraft with an additional eight tons (17,600 pounds) of payload or 500 miles increased range.

High-efficiency Cabin

Airbus is promoting an 11-abreast “high-efficiency” cabin configuration as a result of optimizing space between window seats and cabin sidewall panels while retaining current aisle widths. The manufacturer also had considered raising the floor slightly to take better advantage of the fuselage at the widest point for main deck passengers, but this proposal introduced “all sorts of technical and certification issues,” said Williams.

The company is not currently planning a re-engined A380, or “neo” variant, said Leahy, who nevertheless confirmed that Emirates has encouraged Airbus to consider such a development. So “we will [look at it],” he said. In April, Clark told The Wall Street Journal that his airline could buy even more A380s if a larger model was offered. He is looking for an overall double-digit efficiency gain, with as much as 9 percent expected to come from new powerplants.

Of the 50 extra aircraft ordered by Emirates at last November’s Dubai Airshow, the first 25 would have the airline’s established GP7200 engine preference, he said, with the balance and any additional units being candidates for alternative propulsion–such as an application of the new Rolls-Royce Advance design that could be available in the early 2020s. For Airbus, Williams said there is “no rush,” given the size of the order backlog: “We’d have to be convinced we could do something [worthwhile].”

Nor is Airbus openly discussing a longer-cabin model. Asked about a possible stretched A380-900 variant, Williams said early deliveries of the current -800 had offered “perhaps too comfortable [a] layout,” which now provided an opportunity for streamlining. He reported that some customers are reconsidering their use of “existing real estate,” which would be optimized before Airbus would revisit the topic in the future.

Airport Visibility

Even without stretched or re-engined variants, the current A380 model is becoming increasingly visible at the world’s principal hubs. Indeed, many Farnborough airshow delegates will have arrived in UK by A380 at London Heathrow Airport, which is the most popular airport for “nonlocal” (or nonbased) A380 flights, with almost 80 inbound flights per week (plus another 20 by local based operator British Airways).

In total A380 movements, Heathrow is second only to Dubai, home of the largest based fleet and accounting for 21 percent of all flights. London Gatwick has started to see Emirates A380 operations, too. Next come Singapore, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt. Eight of the world's 11 largest airports host local A380 carriers: only New York-JFK, Los Angeles International and Hong Kong do not. Look for an A380 arriving soon at an airport near you.