While the Airbus A380’s long-term future remains in doubt due to a dwindling backlog, there is no question about what the next decade or so will bring: a steady flow of heavy checks.
The A380 entered revenue service in October 2007, meaning the early-build models have only recently hit in-service thresholds that trigger a major airframe maintenance visit at six years in service. Airbus developed the A380 maintenance program with flexibility in mind; initial intervals saw A Checks conducted at 750 flight hours, C checks every 24 months and more intensive visits incorporating structural inspections coming every six and 12 years.
The model’s largest customer, Emirates Airline, conducted its first major A380 overhaul, a 3C (six-year) check that took 55 days, in 2014. The aircraft, MSN 011, was the sixth A380 delivered and the first to Emirates. The Dubai-based airline has ordered 142 of the 317 A380s sold and taken delivery of 101 of the 222 built. A 20-aircraft memorandum of understanding (MOU) in mid-January provided some lift for the program—enough to extend a slowed-down production line through the end of the next decade should the deal be finalized. Meanwhile, the maturing Emirates A380 fleet—average age about 4.5 years—will help provide steady heavy-check business for the foreseeable future.
Aviation Week’s Commercial Fleet & MRO forecast projects annual A380 heavy maintenance visits to total 30 this year, increasing to 44 by 2022. They are projected to stay at roughly that level throughout the remainder of the decade, averaging 39.5 per year.
Factoring out engine overhauls, the A380 aftermarket is projected to generate $18.3 billion through 2027. The most lucrative category is modifications, including interior refurbishments. Aviation Week’s forecast sees operators spending $7.4 billion on seats, galleys, inflight entertainment and connectivity and related onboard systems accounting for 41% of the total. Components, at $5.7 billion (31%) come next, followed by line maintenance at $3.1 billion (17%) and airframe maintenance, which will generate $2.1 billion (11%). The market will be largely consistent from year to year, ranging from $582 million in 2018 to $845 million in 2025, the decade’s projected peak year.
Airbus ended 2017 with orders for 313 A380s and a backlog of 95. However, not all of the 222 delivered were operating. Singapore Airlines returned MSN 003, the first A380 to fly paying passengers, to Germany-based lessor Dr. Peters Group last October when its 10-year lease expired. Four more are slated to follow by mid-2018.
Singapore’s decision to stop growing its A380 fleet—it is replacing the leased aircraft with models it had on order, which will keep its fleet at 19—points to a larger problem for the Airbus superjumbo program. The OEM insists that market conditions will shift to put the A380 in an ideal spot, as mega-hubs grow more crowded and airlines seek larger aircraft to meet demand. Yet its executives realize that the A380’s long-term fate is tied to orders from the one customer—Emirates—most likely to place them.
“Quite honestly, they’re probably the only one with the ability right now in the marketplace to take a minimum of six a year for a period of 8-10 years,” Airbus chief salesman John Leahy said during the OEM’s annual full-year orders and deliveries briefing Jan. 15, days before the MOU was announced. “So if we can’t work out a deal with Emirates, I think there is no choice but to shut down the program.”
Leahy’s blunt assessment may have been motivated in part by the stalled negotiations with Emirates over an order that many thought would be both larger and announced last year. Emirates wants to ensure production continues for a decade or more and has no interest in proposed new features—such as an 11-abreast cabin and new engine option—that Airbus has proposed to attempt to win over other airlines.
Airbus said in January that it would reduce production to six per year as early as 2020. It delivered 15 A380s in 2017 and plans to deliver 12 this year and eight next year. Six is the lowest it will go, says Airbus Commercial President Fabrice Bregier. The Emirates MOU calls for deliveries to begin in 2020, providing much-needed production work to fill in a gap in the current 95-aircraft backlog.
Singapore’s decision to replace its leased A380s rather than shrink the fleet underscores another point about the aircraft: While its niche outside of the Emirates fleet may be small, its operators are finding uses for the aircraft they have. This points to a stable aftermarket environment as the existing aircraft cycle through their useful lives.
While Airbus works to extend the A380 program’s life and pitches new options to wary airlines, the OEM is not ignoring the model’s customer base. Airbus has been working with operators to analyze maintenance intervals with an eye to extending some of them to help increase the fleet’s “operational availability.” Using data sourced from operators, Airbus has adjusted most A-check items from 750 to 1,000 flight hours. The next phase, expanding the 24-month checks to 36 months—which would mean one fewer out-of-service event every six years—is underway.