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A380: we finish the jumbos well

Even planes have their cemeteries. That of the A380, is located at the edge of the airport of Tarbes (Hautes-Pyrénées). In a specially designed space, four very large Airbus carriers took a few months ago, an early retirement, after only ten years of operation under the colors of the prestigious Asian company Singapore Airlines. Usually, the average life of a device of this type is thirty years. On the Tarbes tarmac, two A380s are waiting for an improbable customer looking for a used plane. The other two are downright promised to skinning. After getting rid of their engines and other valuable items, they will be cut into a puck, before being recycled.

An almost tragic destiny for the flag-bearer of the European aviation industry. An aircraft capable of carrying 500 to 650 passengers on two floors. Even better than Boeing and its legendary 747 (over 400 passengers) monopoly over three decades on long-haul flights.

Yet, less than twelve years after the first commercial flight of this giant of airs, Airbus is preparing to formalize the end of production, by 2021. Perhaps even this Thursday when the presentation of the results of the aircraft manufacturer in Toulouse … The time to finish the twenty or so planes in the order book. In total and according to calculations made by Release from several sources concordant, the A380 program should cost 10 billion euros of losses to Airbus.

Rebate prices

Nothing, however, intended this project to have an outcome as premature as deficit. At the end of the 80s, after years of lean cows, the European aeronautical manufacturer begins to carve a success of esteem. Sales of its A320 model, intended for medium-haul flights of less than five hours, finally take off. Only problem, on the market of very big planes, Airbus remains to pick it up. Hence the idea of ​​the A3XX project which will become the A380. A very big carrier capable of carrying half a thousand passengers seated in rows of ten on two decks. Even Boeing had not dared.

"At the time, remembers an historic Airbus setting, we went on tour of the world's largest airlines to present the project. Eight of them – Emirates, Air France, British Airways, Singapore Airlines … – then say banco. " Their enthusiasm is driven by the growth of air transport. The number of passengers boarding an airliner increases on average by 5% per year. Some major airports are already congested. Difficult to fit additional flights on platforms Heathrow (London) or Schiphol (Amsterdam). In addition, environmental protection movements are keeping watch. They systematically oppose all extension projects. Notre-Dame-des-Landes was not really a first.

A very big plane appears as a panacea. It replaces two medium sized devices. On paper, the advantage should be twofold: less congestion in the air and discounted ticket prices, as the cost per kilometer drops for each passenger transported. Still, moving from 3D design software to the mass production of a mastodon 73 meters long and 79 meters wide is not a sinecure. A fortiori, when it is to be assembled between Toulouse and Hamburg, from shaped elements on twelve production sites across Europe. As a result, the project is eighteen months late and Airbus has to release its checkbook to pay late penalties to the first customers who will not receive their aircraft on time.

Meanwhile, the market began to turn around. The A380 is designed to connect major connecting airports such as Paris and New York, the only ones where it can land. But frequent travelers used to Paris-Shenzhen are increasingly tired of having to stop to link their final destination. They prefer direct links. This is particularly the case for those who travel for professional reasons and pay three times the price of a ticket in economy class, to travel in the greatest comfort. It is precisely these "high contribution" passengers who maintain the profit margins of the airlines. They are therefore entitled in all respects but sulk the big Airbus.

Time of the accounts

At the same time, regulation is playing a bad trick on the A380. Until the late 1990s, four reactors are needed for long distances, especially those over the oceans. In case of engine failure, it is better to have three in working order, rather than one as on a jet. But in the face of technological progress made by the thruster industry, this safety rule has fallen out of favor. "Now you can go anywhere in the world with a twin-engine aircraft", recalls an ex-Airbus salesman.

The commercialization of the A380 is particularly affected by the fact that the financial crisis of 2008 drastically reduces the investments of many airlines. They are reluctant to increase the size of their fleet, as passengers have become rarer. As a result, only one carrier buys the A380 en masse: Emirates, the Dubai-based company, offered 162.

On the other hand, the Chinese companies on which Airbus was betting a lot have superbly ignored the European jumbo. On the Old Continent, Lufthansa and British Airways have acquired parsimoniously. Air France, meanwhile, uses ten but plans to withdraw three of its fleet by 2021.

"It's a beautiful plane, explained last week a steward of the national company to Release. But it often breaks down and because it carries a lot of passengers, it sometimes takes two standard planes to catch the flight. " Of course, the long-time competitor, Boeing, is rubbing his hands. Its 777, with only two engines, sells like hotcakes on the long-haul market. Especially since it is more fuel efficient. An Airbus executive points the shift: "Realize, on a London-Singapore flight, an A380 consumes 144 tons of kerosene, 25 tons more than a Boeing."

In recent months, Airbus, which can no longer record new orders had, in addition, to suffer cancellations. The Australian company Qantas – a customer of the first hour – will not take delivery of eight aircraft. But the blow came from the first user of the A380. Emirates is about to announce that it is giving up twenty purchased farm planes and sixteen options.

Impossible, under these conditions, to continue the adventure. The last aircraft should leave the hangars Toulouse early 2021. However, it is already time of the accounts. The development cost of the A380 is estimated at 24 billion euros. But it has sold only 313 and most often at a discounted price. The official tariff is $ 400 million per piece, but a financial analyst estimates the actual amount billed at less than $ 250 million. In the end, the A380 will have cost at least € 10 billion in losses to the European aircraft manufacturer.

Not to mention that Airbus will have to engage in rather unpleasant discussions with the British, German and French governments. They have indeed granted a repayable advance of 4 billion euros to the aircraft manufacturer to finance the development of this aircraft. However, repayment of this sum is conditional on a minimum sales volume … which has not been reached. It is a safe bet that the States will want to recover a sum much higher than what Airbus is ready to retrocede.

Competitors always

The new boss of the manufacturer, Guillaume Faury, who will officially take office in May, will have to tackle the social consequences of the end of the A380. Today, 3,200 employees across twelve sites in Europe are working on the design and assembly of this device. For the moment, their representatives are relatively serene. Airbus has 129,000 employees, 18,000 of whom change jobs each year. The success of the latest Airbus, the A350, already sold more than 900 copies, should allow the transfer to this program of "ex-A380".

Will the premature end of the air giant remain a stain in the success story of Airbus? Not so sure. A former leader of the group remembers the technological leap generated by the research and development activities related to this aircraft. The main benefit attached to the big jumper, however, remains the commercial legitimacy he brought to the European aircraft manufacturer, in his permanent battle with Boeing. Toulouse were able to show their American competitors that they were able to lead, an extraordinary project. Far from the ocher colors of Occitania, a great salesman of Airbus installed today on another continent sees in any case a decisive step: "If it had not been for the A380, would Airbus have won 50% of the market for planes with more than 100 seats?"

Franck Bouaziz

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