The Rest of the Story
Reading this AP dispatch from London, I can't decide if it's a legitimate news story (on the first British landng of the A380 Super Jumbo jet), or a press release for Airbus, the aircraft's European manufacturer.
The AP story is filled with fun facts on the massive size of the double-decker airliner, and the infrastructure upgrades required to accomodate the A380 at London's Heathrow Airport. There's even a description of the plane's initial flight to Britain, including a pass over the factory in Wales that builds the wings for the A380.
Along the way, the AP even takes a few swipes at Boeing, noting that the A380 will soon pass the American 747 as the world's largest passenger jet. The wire service dutifully notes that Airbus has recieved 159 orders for the giant aircraft, suggesting that the 747's era of dominance is coming to an end.
What's wrong with this story?
As we noted a few months back, both Airbus (and the A380 program) are in a bit of trouble. The super jumbo was conceived when oil prices were below $40 a barrel, and a 555-passenger jetliner made economic sense. Now, with a barrel of crude hovering in the $70 range, airlines are looking for aircraft that are more fuel efficient, particularly on long-haul trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific routes. Instead of rolling out a super jumbo of its own, Boeing wisely opted for development of fuel-efficient jets., notably the 787 "Dreamliner." Over the past two years, the American manufacturer has racked up 291 firm orders for the 787, compared with only 259 for both the A380 and the A350, designed to compete directly with the Dreamliner.
Making matters worse, American airports appear to be in little hurry to expand facilities to accomodate the A380. A 2002 GAO study conservatively estimated that facility upgrades needed to accomodate New Large Aircraft (read: A380) at 10 major U.S. airports will total at least 2.1 billion dollars--a cost that will be borne (ultimately) by travelers and local taxpayers. At Heathrow, upgrades for the A380 have (so far) run $850 million. The two billion total for U.S. airports is likely low, and there is opposition in some communities (notably Los Angeles) to expand terminals and runways to handle the super jumbo. Without wide access to the U.S. market, the A380 is ultimately doomed; in other words, a passenger flying from Singapore or Hong Kong on an A380 would have to change planes in Tokyo or Sidney, adding time (and cost) to the journey.
Not surprisingly, many airlines are opting instead for the Dreamliner, or the latest-generation Boeing 777, fuel-efficient jets, capable of serving long-haul routes, and compatible with existing U.S. airport facilities. While the largest U.S. airports will inevitably expand to accomodate the A380, they will likely remain a rarity at U.S. terminals for years to come, and that will likely translate into fewer orders for Airbus.
Make no mistake: the A380 is a technical marvel. But so were the Spruce Goose, the Lockheed L-1011 and the B-70. Ultimately, none of those designs were successful, because they were the wrong aircraft at the wrong time. The same judgment may ultimately befall the A380.
But that sort of context is obviously missing from the AP story. Reading their account from London, you'd think that Airbus has driven the final stake in Boeing's coffin. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. What are they teaching in journalism schools these days?