Emirates might save the A380, but will anyone else?

There is no doubt that Airbus is now looking down the road to a world without the A380, its last four engined aircraft and the worlds only full double-decker “super-jumbo”,

The Paris Air show demonstrated that design changes are coming to improve fuel and efficiency, though not the huge engine upgrade Emirates wanted. But is it enough? Adding a few miles and a few seats does make it more attractive, but Emirates is only looking now, to replace aircraft that reach ten years old.

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British Airways needs no convincing that the A380 is a good thing and has said it would like more – with at least 12 to 15 years before the third runway at Heathrow comes anywhere near being finished  (and when it does it will be at full capacity within 5-10 years), but decries the cost of a new A380 as too expensive. At the same time it’s made it clear that it may be highly interested in used examples – it already buys in used A320’s and refurbishes them. Plenty of those are on the cards, as Singapore and Emirates are both due to lose their first ten-year olds from leases over the next two years, a process that now begins in earnest at regular intervals.

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Singapore is replacing its first batch, but hasn’t looked past that group, and they’re not a prime example, having been refitted with various technical modifications to overcome problems from wing root issues to flutter, engine mods, and various minor technical issues that crop up on new airframes in service. In fact there’s a big argument to scrap them and provide used parts into the spares network.

Emirates CEO Tim Clarke has always said he would inevitability, be justified in choosing the A380, and I don’t disagree. For Emirates the decision to go that route has made a huge amount of sense, but they’re in a very different position – not just politically but in terms of global geography, the are the centre of the aviation world, what they offer for cross-routing passengers is unique, just because of where they are. He also told Airbus repeatedly, just to hold on and the A380 would come back to save the day.

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All we hear is how congested airports are, and are going to become. Numbers of daily flights are expected to hit 200,000+ by 2040. There’s a huge move with smaller, longer ranged aircraft to go from non-hub major airports to smaller regional destinations, and from regional capitals and larger cities without hub airports to other regional aiports. The 787, 737 Max and A321neoLR are all key in this massive, growing market.

Yet people still need to travel in growing numbers to key cities. As environmental concerns keep growing, the convenience of say, three 789 flights a day from London to LAX – Virgin Atlantic are running this right now, plus two A380’s a day from BA, as well as American Airlines two 773ER’s, pressure must build to reduce flights and increase passengers per flight. It just isn’t sustainable as it is in the long-term.

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It’s also a question about how A380’s are used. The number of seats varies from as low as under 400 to as high as 800. Sooner or later airlines with just 420 seats are going to have to ask if this is really the way to make money. Does First Class really matter any more, when nobody pays the full price for a ticket anyway?

Airlines love looking into their crystal balls, but none of them have come to the same conclusion. Similar maybe, but not the same. The majors all made commitments to a path that includes variously the giant 777-X, A350-1000’s, 787-10’s and now some of them don’t want them. They can’t see where they’re going, and they’re not sure if what they ordered is actually what they want. Someone has to make up their minds because massive long-term strategic decisions like aircraft purchases aren’t something short-term views, and profit drives once a quarter work well with.

The future of air travel takes planning and commitment. Airlines are poor at both, and fickle short-term views predominate. The A380 can’t wait for a sort term view. It needs long-term ideas and commitment. Either airlines realise it has a place or they don’t. Just don’t come back lamenting its loss in ten years time when it’s no longer with us.

 

 

©Jon Champs 2017 (images unatributable)

 

 

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