Airbus graphical summary of 2013 A380 models

When Qantas postponed two Airbus A380s to save capital expenditure in the rapidly growing market that its newly separated international division is supposed to address it also walked away from an upgraded version of the giant airliner that could have carried a viable payload non-stop between London and Perth.

The 575 tonnes version of the jet which is deliverable from next year gains a payload of an eight tonnes compared to the current version at 560 tonnes takeoff weight, or a range of up to 8500 nautical miles or 500 nm more than can be flown with a nominal 525 passenger payload today.

The 575 tonne 2013 version of the A380 as graphed by Airbus

Qualifications are in order however.  The notion of Perth-London flights non-stop in something as large as an A380 is not about Perth originating traffic, but flights with a substantial number of passengers starting their journey in the eastern capitals.

Qantas carries 450 passengers in its current configuration of the A380 but is understood to gain little if anything in weight/payload advantage compared to the nominal 525 seat version of the jet because of the weight of fittings in its large business and first class cabins and Airbus wouldn’t discuss the proprietary mission statistics of any of its giant jet customers even though its Chief Operating Officer, Customers, John Leahy, admitted to being disappointed at the Qantas decision to postpone two A380s to later in the decade when the airline is due to raise its total existing fleet of 12 A380s to 20.

The point about the 575 tonnes version of the A380 is that it does make it possible to fly a viable but not full configuration of the jet each way between Australia and London without actually needing to land to refuel anywhere in between.

Australia-Europe flights non-stop, whether from Perth or Darwin, have been seen as a way of lessening the Qantas reliance on intermediate ports like Singapore or Bangkok to get to Europe for many years, based on the view that eventually improvements to airframes and engines would also render non-stops from Sydney or Melbourne viable.

In fact the Perth or Darwin options are not the shortest possible routes for flights starting in the east coast capitals, and in recent years, the growth of business and leisure traffic from Singapore and Dubai (which Qantas has never served) has lessened the force of the non-stop to Europe argument, but not made it go away either.

What the 575 tonnes version of the A380 says is that the airframe has been calculatedly  over-engineered from the start for bigger things, and is capable of such flights when the right engines and other minor improvements to the airframe are made.

What the 2013 A380s can do from London: Airbus graphic
What the 2013 A380s can do from London: Airbus graphic

Perth is also a difficult city to serve in terms of alternative airport scenarios, something the Airbus range/payload chart for its new versions doesn’t recognize. To really operate to Perth from London with a nominal load of 525 passengers  the A380 would need to be capable of reaching Adelaide in some circumstances if Perth was closed and the few last case remote alternatives in WA were also unavailable because of shared adverse weather.

So the Perth-London route would need a payload reduction to be rendered a reliable non-stop non-diversion prone service in an A380.

The key role for such an A380 for Qantas might be Sydney-Dallas Fort Worth instead.

The new heavier further flying version of the A380 isn’t a Hong Kong-New York non-stop jet either, something Cathay Pacific wants but doesn’t look like getting straight away. But it would give Cathay Pacific far better lift out of San Francisco or Los Angeles than it can get now with a 747-400, or  777-300ER, the latter having better range than the A380 but just not enough seats to cater for demand if slot or treaty limitations apply.

The 490 tonnes or de-rated version of the A380 also now on offer to airlines takes the big jet in a different direction for the first time, although it is one that was forecast to occur by Airbus in its original case for building the jet.

The version discussed in Toulouse this week is in fact optimized for meeting London Heathrow jet noise standards that would allow flights into the airport during existing jet curfew hours. It would let Emirates fly all of the passengers that want to use its services to London Heathrow now but can’t get seats on its flights, and it would, hypothetically, allow the two UK A380 customers, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic to get far more efficient use of the jet on services to the US and Canada than is possible with any jet airliner using Heathrow today.

These new versions of the A380 put off the day that Airbus will build a stretched or higher passenger capacity version of the biggest passenger jet flying today, which has been on hold for years awaiting demand.

Leahy said that if everything was in place in terms of intended orders by airlines and engineering and design resources at Airbus, it could be 5-6 years before a version that adds more than 100 passengers to the A380 seat count, or gives it essentially non-stop range between any two points on earth, could be delivered.

Such a jet would exploit the over engineered wing on today’s A380s as well as more powerful engines  yet with lowered fuel burn, and further weight reduction of the actual airframe through the use of lighter materials.

Leahy said all of these things are readily achievable, but they require customers, and engineering resources.  Airbus predicts that demand for the A380 will surge in the next 10 or more years as growth meets the limitations of current and likely airports.

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