Today marks the first time the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet will land at American airports. In fact, two of the jets will grace our runaways: one will be operated by Lufthansa pilots and crew, and will carry a load of passengers, complete with in-flight dining. From Frankfurt to New York JFK. The other will be operated by Qantas, and fly from Sydney to Los Angeles, but minus any passengers or flight attendants.
If I were within driving distance of either airport, I would go take a look. For all its problems, this airplane is a magnificent achievement based on size alone. Tomorrow, the Lufthansa-operated plane will run a leg to Chicago O'Hare, returning to JFK, and then back to Frankfurt.
But the arrival does not represent a culmination of good news. Last week saw one of the most disturbing problems of the A380 break into print: it is seriously overweight. Not like the chubby American tourists who draw derision as they explore Europe, but a full six tons overweight.
The serious weight problem of the A380 has been widely discussed and speculated-upon within aviation circles, but until last week nobody was saying anything on the record. But the CEO of the largest single customer for the A380, Mr. Tim Clark of Emirates, which accounts for over a quarter of the order book, went public.
"There are still an extra six tons of weight we can't get out of the A380. That will cost us extra money in operation for the next 10 or 15 years," Clark said.
Few doubt that Mr. Clark is seeking extra money from Airbus, to compensate for the extra costs Emirates will bear. If the airplane minus fuel is six tons overweight, then additional fuel will have to be loaded, or its range will be diminished, or passenger and cargo loads will have to be diminished. The extra weight means higher fuel consumption no matter what the loads or range. Over 15 years, that adds up to a lot of money, which Emirates will want to get upfront from Airbus. Mr. Clark is both widely admired and criticized over his hardball style and ferocisou pursuit of low costs.
Now that the French have signaled their state treasury stands behind Airbus, it is time for other airlines to demand their compensation as well. More money flowing out from Airbus. All of this makes the program require even more sales to break even, up from the estimated 450 sales (almost triple the current order book total) figure now bandied about. Boeing has almost surpassed 500 orders for its 787, and will do so
"in the not-too-distant future," Mike Bair, general manager of the 787 program, said on a conference call.
Just to rub it in, on the day the 380 arrives, Boeing noted in the same conference call that the 787's development is on track in terms of timing, weight, and costs, and that Boeing is seriously considering increasion the rate of production.
In contrast, lately, the order book for the Airbus superjumbo has shrunk, with UPS cancelling its order for 10 of the cargo version. And today comes news that Malaysian Airline System is on the verge of cancelling its order for six of the passenger version of the 380. It may be a matter of playing hardball with Airbus over compensation for delivery delays and weight problems, or it may be that MAS has taken a long cold look at the airplane and concluded that it will pursue other options.
Now that the rumors of the A380's serious weight problem have been confirmed, other rumors about other problems may be breaking into public discussion. As with the weight issue, it may well be a customer which speaks the first words on the record.