The thought of an Airbus franchise that no longer offers the world’s largest airliner, its A380, has started to arc up again as its largest customer, Emirates, declined to embrace the Plus package the European consortium rolled out at the Paris Air Show.
As reported by Aviation Week the president of Emirates Tim Clark isn’t buying proposals for 11 across seating in economy on part of the main deck, nor the replacement of the forward grand staircase between its two floors as options for lifting the airliner’s seat count and reducing operating costs by as much as 13 percent compared to the current version.
The places this impasse could lead to need careful consideration. Should Airbus decline to keep the A380 on life support until demand for it returns in the coming decade the largest and most comprehensive range of airliners being produced will be from Boeing, with its 777-X series, becoming the largest capacity jet available for much of the 2020s if not well into the following decade.
Europe would lose its ‘crown’ in terms of size and diversity of passenger jet aircraft models. Whether that actually matters to its shareholders is another matter of course. In 2017 it is safe to say it matters a lot, but in another 10 years, maybe it won’t rate beside the major achievements of Airbus as a profitable and very efficient planemaker and major EU employer.
It is as clear as it can be that Emirates wants the A380 to continue, but with the benefits of the latest engine technology and to realise the potential airframe improvements that already make the A350 series a formidable and inherently more comfortable jet to operate from an airline or passenger perspective.
The A380 was designed from the outset to be enlarged in terms of capacity and even range. When the first production A380 for Singapore Airlines was rolled out in Toulouse in 2007 the attendant media heard that 2014 might be the right time to stretch the fuselage and make the jet capable of carrying as many as 1000 passengers instead of 840. Or in a multi class layout, maybe close to 700 passengers compared to around 525 today.
But the world of air transport changed. Carriers started to put more passengers into A330-300s in tight fit cabins than some of the more premium layouts of the early A380s. A similar densification strategy overtook the classic amenity of the 777s, and airlines found that there was money in hurting and humiliating people with tight seats and toilets they couldn’t reasonably endure or use.
This process is probably far from over, even if it discourages people from flying as often as they used to. Newly minted consumers in Asia and low fare inspired growth in general have become the primary source of new custom in air transport. Service standards have not only been compromised in the main economy cabins, but in the more premium cabins as well.
It is difficult to say where this might end, but it could see an end to A380 production and development, and the relegation of Airbus to a secondary role in making very large airliners.