Is the A380 waiting for Godot, or the market, to overtake it?
The A380 waiting for Godot, or the market, to overtake it?

Those who like flying in A380s, and the rapidly diminishing numbers of 747s, and older roomier 777s, may all have been having anxiety attacks in recent days.

But fear not, while our beloved jumbos are indeed rapidly disappearing, the same isn’t true, at least not for quite some time, for other wide bodies, including the somewhat tabloid headline hogging A380 which has been copping it from stories like this one on the BBC.

And the BBC story is actually quite good, since it appears the writer looked up the two or more year old press releases from Singapore Airlines saying they would indeed retire the first five of their A380s from next year, and replace them with five brand new ones.

Those with skin in the second hand airliner game know perhaps with some pain that the market for second hand wide bodies is stuffed. They also know how the game gets played as well, and some are even suggesting the A380 yarns are just smokescreens for the depressed outlooks for used 777s, A340s, and indeed used anything that might possibly be coming up for a horribly costly D-check.

These D-checks are unavoidable unless you are running some dodgy operation in the darker recesses of the third world. Having your elderly wide-body jet come inconveniently apart in the skies of the first and second world economies would be a really bad look.

D-checks involve the costly disassembly of an airliner and the replacement of sometimes quite significantly expensive pressure cycle sensitive components. Once you have pumped pressurised air in and out of a jet tens of thousands of times things like rivets or fasteners tend to loosen up a bit, as do the areas in and around where the main bogeys slam onto the tarmac with every landing.

It has been said that some older jets might cost more to be kept legally airworthy than their true value.

Indeed, some of these jets might also be on the books of some airlines at very naughty valuations that are unrealisable, although we hasten to add, this would not be true of Qantas after its $2.8 billion worth of write downs several years ago before it became insanely lucrative for the first time since the start of jet time.

Thus airlines like Singapore Airlines, and Qantas, and Emirates, make much these days of the youthfulness of their fleets. Younger planes cost less to fuel, and to maintain, since if possible, you are going to flog them off before the really costly stuff kicks in.

But they don’t necessarily cost what airlines want to pay, or more to the point, finance. The bigger the jet, the more risk it brings to the accounts. Listening to some of the timidity out there about fleet renewals, it is mildly surprising some airlines don’t just wet themselves and go out of business.

Airbus and Boeing show the pain of wide body buyer reluctance, even as demand continues to surge in some long haul markets, in their decisions to throttle back production of large jets, including brand new current model A380s, 777s and 747-8s.

The last named and final version of the 747 is clinically dead as a passenger offering, and pretty close to it as a brand new freighter too, notwithstanding its merits in either role. The A380 has gone without a substantive order for several years, but Emirates is more than happy to keep growing its fleet of them and new 777s, no doubt conscious that no-one who has flown 9 across in an A330 or a Boeing 787 or will do so in the threatened 10 across high density version of an A350 is going to seriously want to do that again. (If only Emirates would do something about its ten across 777s, but I digress.)

So far, what could have been new orders for large tranches of wide bodies may have been diverted instead into the cheaper option of reconfiguring existing middle aged jets with more seats than Airbus or Boeing ever thought likely.  It has certainly increased the ‘utility’ from an accounting point of view of the 787 Dreamliners, and to hell with what that does to kneecaps and backsides.

There are 777s in long haul service with more seats now than some A380 and many 747 configurations. There are some A330s in ‘service’ for want of a better word with more seats than Emirates for example puts in its tighter fit 777s.

The more the total operating costs of a jet can be divided by increased seats the better the ‘metrics’ look. In theory. Those extra seats have to be sold. Inflicting pain on customers has become an accounting necessity for modern airlines, and it involves some pain for the aircraft makers too, since the carriers have been able to kick the fleet renewal can further down the road. Certainly further down the road than the next two or three bonus related payments to current airline managements, in general terms of course.

Both jet makers expect that growth will be such that airlines will have no option but to order larger 777-X series jets, or an A380 with revised wing and engines and a longer double deck cabin. Which is what has been designed into its basic architecture since before it went into service in 2007.

It’s a painful waiting game, for the jet makers, and the jet users.

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