Farnborough Air Show

Superjumbo Production Struggles To Stay Alive

 - July 16, 2018, 5:09 AM
Despite recent orders, production of Airbus’s A380 (above) is down to a trickle. Meanwhile, Boeing’s 747-8 (below) program is reduced to assembling six air-cargo versions per year.

Persistent rumors of the demise of Boeing’s 747 and Airbus’s A380 have proven premature. Each time the aviation industry has declared either airplane’s imminent expiration, enough orders have trickled in to keep production running for another few years, albeit at a snail’s pace.

In fact, Boeing is now assembling 747s at a rate of six per year. There is some market for the 747 for a few years, given its interest to the air cargo sector, which has finally bounced back.

But the A380’s prognosis looks grim, despite Emirates Airline’s recent order for 20 A380s with options for another 16. The order announcement ended a long drought for the largest passenger airplane. Airbus had not landed an order for the type since 2016, and last year the program netted two orders.

As of May, Airbus counted orders for 106 A380s and has committed to keep the program going at least for another decade. That was a prerequisite to the Emirates order, the airline confirmed with AIN earlier this year.

Despite the good news, Airbus leaders in February said they plan to cut A380 annual production from 12 this year to eight in 2019 and to six in 2020. In announcing the change, the company said it can assemble A380s at that rate in an “industrially efficient way over the coming years.”

But efficient “doesn't mean we are still making money on it,” Airbus chief executive Tom Enders told reporters at a briefing following the February announcement, “but the losses that such a low rate would produce are certainly digestible.”

The month before, Airbus’s outgoing COO for customers, John Leahy, told media at the company’s annual orders and deliveries briefing that the program could shut down if the Emirates deal did not materialize. However, if the airplane can survive, demand could come back due to growing traffic demands at already congested and confined airports in cities such as New York, London, and Tokyo.

The Airbus 2017 global market forecast projects demand for 1,184 new very large passenger aircraft—those with capacity above 450 passengers—by 2036. Airbus expects most of those new deliveries—567—to go to carriers in the Asia-Pacific region, followed by Middle East carriers with projected demand for 402 new superjumbos. The forecast does not specify when that demand will come, but it likely won't be soon enough to save the A380.

Many industry experts are far more skeptical about Airbus’s decision to maintain the line. Rather than a lifeline, it was “perhaps the stupidest deal in airliner history,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the Teal Group in Washington, D.C. “It guarantees the line stays open for years for one customer, operating at a loss.” It simply forces future leadership at both Airbus and Emirates to clean up the mess, he said. “If both sides are smart, they’ll back down from this.”

No market has yet developed for preowned A380s. In May, the German aircraft lessor Dr. Peters Group said it would part out two early-production A380s flown by Singapore Airlines after failing to find new operators for them. One was the very first delivered by Airbus in October 2007.

“The A380 is a young program, and its operator base will continue to expand with both new and used aircraft,” an Airbus spokesman told AIN. “Working closely with our customers, we see a market developing over the next few years for second-hand A380s, like any other aircraft type, and Airbus is working to facilitate this.”

The company continues work to increase the airplane’s efficiency. However, tweaking the efficiency of such a mammoth airplane does not address airlines’ central concern: how to make money flying a four-engine plane that can fit 555 passengers.

Airlines flying Boeing’s 747 have grappled with the same question. More and more have determined they cannot make money flying passengers, but the widebody has found a niche in the freight market.

“We continue to build 747-8s at a rate of 0.5 airplanes per month, and there are no plans at this time to change that,” Boeing spokesman Paul Bergman said. “No decision has been made to discontinue the program.”

Company leaders indicated closing the 747 line was a possibility in July 2016, when the company took a $1.2 billion pre-tax loss on the 747-8 program. Many analysts expect the program to end by 2020. However, a resurgent cargo market could extend the 747 program’s life for a few more years.

The A380 will miss out on this market opportunity, though. Airbus scrapped a proposed freighter version due to lack of interest from shippers, and a conversion market never materialized. Essentially, the superjumbo is too expensive; its middle floor is too hard to take out and too weak to keep; it is too big to reliably fill enough for cost-efficient fuel burn; and it has other weight and balance issues, in part due to the fact that a large cargo door could likely be installed only at the front.

While the air cargo market was hit hard by the 2008 global recession and the sluggish recovery, it has rebounded strongly. Last year this market grew by nearly 10 percent year-over-year, compared to 3.6 percent in 2016. Air freight has benefitted from fast-paced growth in e-commerce worldwide, and Chinese consumers are just getting going.

“The recent order from UPS for 14 additional [747-8F] freighters clearly indicates that our customers continue to seek value in the airplane,” Bergman said. “This order extension helps us increase our backlog and sustain a steady production rate.”

The company’s backlog was 24 airplanes as of June. It’s not clear how many more orders remain for the jumbo, which will celebrate its golden anniversary next year.