Jumbo Trouble: The Airbus A380 was supposed to be the future of aviation. Will it ever get off the ground? (Barbara S. Peterson, December 2006, Popular Mechanics)
Five years ago, the A380 was being hailed as a turning point in aviation history—a plane that would reinvent air travel and leave Airbus’s rival, Boeing, in its wake. Today, the program is two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. Airbus CEO Christian Streiff proposed drastic changes to put production back on schedule. Frustrated by corporate governance that impeded this strategy, Streiff resigned. In a project of this magnitude, holdups and design changes are expected. More than 35 years ago, the first 747 rolled out of the Boeing plant in Everett, Wash., with 5000-pound concrete blocks dangling from its wings because the engines weren’t ready. But the A380’s woes go far beyond the normal setbacks. Says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton of Leeham Co., “A delay this big is really rare this far into the modern jet age.”
When the A380 goes into service in late 2007, regulators may require dramatically larger separation distances because of the huge plane’s wake turbulence. Meanwhile, Airbus engineers continue to face manufacturing glitches even as they advance aviation technology.
Critics say that the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co. (EADS), the four-country consortium that controls Airbus, serves too many masters. On the one hand, EADS is shielded from the costs of bad business decisions: Some experts estimate that in the past 30 years European Union taxpayers have shelled out $15 billion to cover cost overruns. On the other, the company is vulnerable to political pressures, which sometimes seem to call for bold technological statements. In the 1960s, another European consortium relied on massive subsidies to produce the Concorde, a supersonic aircraft at once technologically adventurous and economically disastrous. It was retired in 2003.
Will the A380 be the next Concorde—an engineering breakthrough with little chance of breaking even? Certainly, the problem the jetliner was supposed to help solve—airport gridlock—still exists. The world’s major hubs already operate at full capacity during peak hours, and traffic is expected to increase 4 percent annually, from 4.2 billion passengers in 2005 to 7 billion passengers in 2020. Building new airports or significantly expanding existing ones, though, is a practical and political nightmare.
The Airbus solution: Increase capacity with a plane that carries up to 900 passengers—nearly twice as many as the 747. “It is this big monster,” says Hans Weber, president of Tecop International, a San Diego-based aviation consulting firm. “And Airbus has struggled with the nightmare of making something this big economically efficient.”
Meanwhile, Boeing has gambled that the market is most interested in a fuel-efficient, midrange widebody that gives airlines flexibility. Its flagship project became the 250-passenger 787 Dreamliner, slated to go into service in 2008.
Virtually all experts agree that the A380 will eventually join the civilian fleet. (The plane’s maiden voyage—a planned Singapore Airlines flight to Sydney, Australia—was recently pushed back, again, and is now slated for late 2007.) But the problems facing the most expensive, ambitious nonmilitary aircraft project in history are mounting.
The notion that landing a plane twice as big won’t encounter those same expansion problems is so silly only experts could believe it.