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Airbus proclaims its A380 a success
Steve Creedy | May 22, 2009
Article from: The Australian
AIRBUS says its flagship A380 is a success, as the superjumbo approaches the 50,000 revenue flight hour milestone.
Eighteen months after the A380's first commercial flight, between Singapore and Sydney, the European plane-maker now has 14 superjumbos operating around the world.
They have together clocked up more than 41,000 revenue flight hours and 4200 revenue flights, most of them long-haul flights involving high daily utilisation.
Its service experience with the three initial operators -- Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates -- is almost eight times that of the Airbus test fleet, and the planes have carried more than 1.5 million passengers.
Airbus says it is pleased with the roll-out of the aircraft, despite some high-profile media coverage of some problems.
It claims operational reliability is better than other long-haul aircraft in their first year after entry into service, something it says is unprecedented for an all-new design.
But it has yet to publish reliability statistics backing up the claim, arguing the use of the plane on long-haul routes of up to 15 hours meant flight cycles are accumulating slowly.
The low number of flight cycles, it says, means there are still wild fluctuations when there is technical event.
"This is why we are not yet publishing the reliability figures for the A380," says Airbus director of A380 product marketing Richard Carcaillet told reporters in Hamburg last week.
"It would be misleading, statistically not meaningful, and it would be a bit unfair for the first three operators as well."
Airbus expects trends to become clearer as the fleet builds up more cycles, but it is already refuting claims in some media of problems with the A380.
Carcaillet noted it was natural that there would be excitement and heated commentary about a new plane and people want to know what's going on with the A380. But the answer to that question, he says, is "not much".
"I've been nearly 20 years with Airbus and frankly I've not seen an entry into service like this. Never," he says. "Singapore said it's the best EIS they've ever had, of any aircraft. I think the publicity is just a consequence of the A380, like the 747 back in the 1970s, being something really different. People are watching and they're enthusiastic about it and we have to live with it."
Carcaillet says that even the manufacturer is amazed that the first aircraft flew for three months with Singapore Airlines without a technical issue.
Asked about fuel problems that grounded two Qantas A380s simultaneously, he says he has not followed the investigation closely but he believes several hypotheses are still being examined.
One had to do with the storage of fuel in the wings and the other related to airport fuel storage, where fuel had not been removed from the bottom of tanks in previous years.
The theory is that the A380, which uploads large volumes of fuel, had caught something that had been sitting for some time in the tank.
He noted that no other aircraft in the fleets of the other two operators have had anything similar occur.
"We'll see," he says. "The investigating is ongoing and it's completely shared -- on the table -- with Qantas from our customer service people."
Airbus is also pleased with the engines on the plane, Carcaillet says. He says there had been one issue on each engine, including an oil problem on the Rolls-Royce engines used by Qantas. But he says these were "minor items" which were being ironed out.
"So there's one each, which is really good for brand new engines," he says.
Carcaillet also believes the A380 is living up to expectations in terms of performance.
Airbus says the A380 requires 17 per cent less runway than the Boeing 747-400 to take off and 11 per cent less to land.
It lays claim to a 4000ft higher initial cruise altitude, a 20 knot lower approach speed and 1100 nautical miles more range.
Tests by Airservices Australia show that the A380 is a quieter option for those living near flight paths -- more than 6db below a 747-400 on takeoff and up to 3.7db quieter on arrival.
The aircraft's roomy and significantly quieter cabin is also proving a hit with passengers and Airbus points to comments by operators that the aircraft continues to attract higher load factors.
On the important issue of operational economics, Airbus estimates that fuel burn per seat is 8 per cent less than the 747-8 intercontinental, 20 per cent less than the 747-400 and 10 per cent below the 777-300ER.
While these claims are always open to contention between manufacturers, Airbus says an analysis of Singapore Airlines flights between Singapore and London showed that replacing 21 weekly Boeing 747-400 flights with 14 A380s and seven 777-300ERs gave a 15 per cent lower fuel burn per seat with a 22 per cent increase in capacity. "That is fuel efficiency in action," Carcaillet says. "That is benefits to the bottom line; that is also benefits to the environment."
Another Airbus calculation based on Singapore Airlines operations to Paris shows that replacing a 278-seat 77-300ER operating 10 flights a week with a 471-seat 380 operating daily flights, gives a 20 per cent increase in capacity with a 3 per cent fall in operating costs.
Airbus calculates this translates into $US9.7 million worth of savings per year in operating costs and provides nearly 21,000 extra seats.
On the vexed question of the A380 being overweight -- a favourite topic of Emirates boss Tim Clark -- Carcaillet says Airbus is moving to claw back the "moderate overweight" the plane had at entry into service in 2007.
He says this will allow the company to be more competitive in campaigns against the 747-8 by allowing it to offer 300 nautical miles extra range or a higher takeoff weight.
Despite the Airbus pride in its technologically advanced new baby, sales of the A380 have recently been slower than expected. It remains at 200 firm orders from 16 customers.
The manufacturer announced earlier this month it was reducing A380 deliveries, after airline demand for the big plane waned because of the global recession.
It said customer requests for aircraft deferrals had prompted it to change its delivery schedule to 14 planes this year, down from 18 originally planned.
Airlines are finding it harder to fill aircraft, as passenger numbers fall. Global traffic fell more than 11 per cent in March and the industry has been unsettled by the swine flu outbreak.
Airbus achieved its goal of handing over 12 A380s last year, including the first planes to Qantas. But the flying kangaroo announced last month that it had successfully negotiated to defer deliveries of four A380s for 10 to 12 months.
Cost overruns and penalties on the A380 have increased spending on the model's development to about $US18 billion, from the originally planned $US12 billion, after a two-year delay due to wiring and production problems.
Even so, Carcaillet believes the program will ultimately be profitable and will take the lion's share of another 400 very large planes existing customers are expected to order over the next two decades.
Steve Creedy travelled to Hamburg courtesy of Airbus.