Airbus questions A380's future

In 2002 Manchester United was having a difficult season, so there was little surprise when famously volatile manager Alex Ferguson blew his top at a press conference. The touchpaper was lit when hacks questioned the signing of underperforming Juan Veron for a then British record of £28m. “He’s a f**king great player. Yous are f**king idiots. On you go!”.

Tim Clark is the boss of Emirates, an airline with similar global branding ambitions to Manchester United, and his reaction to the A380’s uncertain future echoed Ferguson’s defence of a player he regarded as a star, but most within the rest of the industry saw as a flop.

“The A380 is a great aircraft. If airlines don’t believe they can fill an A380 then their business model is wrong,” Clark told Airline Ratings magazine.

Air France-KLM has found it difficult to successfully operate the superjumbo outside certain trunk routes, and could follow Lufthansa in cancelling some of its A380s still on order.

Aside from those setbacks no new airline has ordered an A380 for more than two years and no existing customer bar Emirates has added to its backlog.

Thus Clark’s statement effectively maligns the entire long-haul carrier industry – somewhat ironic given the suspicion with which many airlines view Emirates’ own business model.

Airbus and Clark believe the fault lies with other airlines’ seating plans for the A380, which they say don’t properly exploit its capacity in economy.

In reality, though, Airbus’ vision for the long-haul market has lost out to Boeing’s, and the “very large aircraft” sector will remain confined to the European airframer’s market outlook.

That doesn’t mean that Airbus’ hub-to-hub philosophy has been completely undermined by Boeing’s point-to-point mantra – the market accommodates both models – but smaller, nimbler widebodies offering high frequencies will be the aircraft of choice for the next 20 years – not behemoths like the A380 or 747-8.

Airbus’ CFO has raised the possibility of discontinuing A380 production from 2018, while Clark has promised to buy 140 re-engined A380neos should Airbus decide to make them.

Less than a year after his rant, Ferguson bowed to the inevitable and let Veron go. Airbus should do the same for its record-breaking model.

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