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The airline industry is in a state of transition, and although the recession appears to be coming to an end, the future remains uncertain. Equally uncertain is the future of the A380.
Mergers have recently seen some of the worlds largest airlines become even bigger, giving rise to complaints of decreased competition. However there is an advantage in one large airline being able to combine flights, and use larger planes. Yet bigger does not automatically mean better, with some of the smaller operators (using smaller aircraft), such as South West, consistently posting strong earnings.
The recent trend has been towards leaner operations, with significant reductions in staffing. Meals on domestic flights are a thing of the past, and restrictions are becoming ever tighter on baggage allowances. Electronic ticketing is now the norm, with an extra charge for paper. Larger, more fuel-efficient aircraft are increasingly being seen as a way to move greater numbers of passengers at less cost.
Where does the Airbus A380 fit into this uncertain future? The two possibilities are that it will fulfill the industry's hopes and become the workhorse of long-haul flights, especially on the Asian routes, or it will end up an unprofitable status-symbol, like the supersonic Concorde.
The history of the A380 is a story of endless promises and setbacks. The novel design, new materials, and sheer size of the craft provided unexpected headaches through development and production. The original target was for more than 100 planes delivered by the end of 2009, but the actual number was only 10. Today there are only 5 airlines flying a total of 37 A380s.
The most recent setback for this super-jumbo was the mid-air explosion of one of its engines on a Quantas Airlines flight. This was not the first time that in-flight problems had occurred with the Rolls Royce engines. Both Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines had previously been forced to make unscheduled landings due to unexplained oil pressure changes.
After grounding all of its A380s, Quantas found that the Rolls Royce engines suffered from internal oil leaks, necessitating replacement of all this model of engine. Their entire fleet may now remain on the ground for the busiest period in the Asian market. Other airlines with Rolls Royce equipped engines, are finding themselves in the same situation.
Airbus has orders for almost 200 A380s. Unfortunately airlines are known to change existing orders as market conditions change. If the economy continues to improve, orders could increase dramatically, however a return to the recession could see them vanish.
Since all the hopes at Airbus, other planes, especially the Boeing 777 (over 800 already in service), have become the mainstay for long-haul flights, this schedule the 777 carrying only 325 passengers compared to the A380's 525 (over 800 in an all economy configuration).
The future of the A380 is far from certain. Even a continued upswing in the economy will not guarantee success. Slow production, engine problems and competition from more conventional aircraft, will be obstacles for Airbus. There are still only a handful of airports in the world that can accomodate this monster, further limiting its usefulness.
The next few years will decide the fate of the A380. It could either become the wave of the future, or end up on the scrap heap, like that other daring experiment, the Concorde.