The Airbus A380 made a flawless test landing in Germany Saturday. Despite its success, the European aircraft maker won't be delivering the gigantic planes on time to its buyers. Experts say it won't dent Airbus' image.
The A380 touched down in Frankfurt amid thick fog
It was an event few aviation fans were willing to miss. As a prototype of the gigantic A380, the world's largest passenger airliner, swooped down from the skies to make a perfect landing at the Frankfurt airport on Saturday morning amid thick fog, tens of thousands of spectators held their breath in awe.
While some clambered on stools they had brought along to get a good look at the 290-ton heavy machine coming to a halt at Terminal 2 of the Rhein-Main airport, others held their cameras and mobile phones above their heads to capture the image.
It was the first test landing of the long-haul aircraft outside the testing facilities in France and the main aim is to check the handling and maintenance of the A380 at a civil airport. The aircraft will fly back to Toulouse in France on Sunday.
The Airbus A380 is the world's largest passenger plane
It's exactly a year since the A380, designed to carry up to 853 passengers, took to the skies for the first time. Since its maiden flight on April 27, the aircraft has undergone 110 test flights, clocking 380 flying hours, said Tore Prang, a spokesman of Airbus.
"The test results are excellent. The performance is much better than expected," he said, adding that it also held true for the craft's fuel-consumption -- at 2.9 liters of kerosene for 100 kilometers per passenger.
The low consumption -- 12 percent lower than all other large aircraft according to Airbus -- is an important selling point given that fuel usage now accounts for around 16 to 20 percent of the overall costs of an airline.
Delivery marred by delays
Until now, 16 customers have placed orders for 159 A380s which cost 292 million euros ($353 million) apiece. The Gulf-based airline Emirates is the biggest buyer with 41 orders.
The Airbus A380 final assembly line near Toulouse
But, what's annoyed many is the fact that the European aircraft manufacturer has delayed the delivery of the airplanes. Thus, Singapore Airlines, which wanted to get the first of its 10 ordered airplanes by March, now has to wait longer.
"The A380 will fly for 30 years -- it's not just a big deal if the planes begin flying in the first or the second half of the year," said Prang. The amount of compensation that Airbus has to shell out for its waiting customers, remains under wraps.
The delivery is now scheduled to begin in December 2006 provided there are no further hiccups.
One of the biggest hurdles is reportedly evacuating passengers from the plane. According to international regulations, in the case of an emergency, 873 passengers must be able to leave the aircraft in the dark within 90 seconds by using slides.
Airbus however insists there are no more hitches on that front.
"I'm confident that there won't be any problems there," said Tore Prang. But, Airbus has delayed tests for far and an evacuation check is now slated for Feb 2006.
However, some say that teething problems are normal when it comes to mammoth projects.
It's not unusual that there are delays, according to Ulrich Horstmann, aviation analyst at the Bayerische Landesbank. Horstmann predicted that the A380 would have a shining future. He added that the 159 orders were an encouraging start given that many airlines only develop new jets after they prove their value on the market.
"Airbus can rake in returns due to its monopoly because there aren't any other aircraft in that class and Boeing can't give a befitting reply," said Horstmann.
A German Lufthansa Boeing 747 takes off at the Frankfurt airport
The American rival is developing a larger version of the 1969-created Jumbo Jet in the form of its 747 Advanced, which with 450 seats can carry 50 more passengers.
"But the 747 is perceived as an old aircraft," according to Horstmann.
The Americans however have a different strategy. Instead of concentrating on a new giant aircraft, Boeing is expending its energies on developing the 787, a long-haul aircraft with 250 seats. In future, flexible direct flights will play a greater role than has been the case until now, is the American thinking. At the same time, the market for large aircraft is too small to make a new development -- which cost 13 billion euros in the case of the A380 -- profitable.
Airbus catches up
However Airbus spokesman Prang doesn't buy the argument.
"All airports which have growth problems have welcomed the arrival of the A380," Prang said. London's Heathrow Airport for instance could then reach 10 million extra passengers by 2016 thanks to the A380 without having to organize more take-offs and landings, he pointed out.
Airbus believes air passenger numbers worldwide will treble
And, in the coming years, the worldwide air passenger figures would rise threefold, having an effect on all class segments, Prang added.
"Boeing only has one strategy, we have both," he said, pointing towards the planned A340 long-haul aircraft for around 300 passengers. Airbus is currently developing the A350, an aircraft in the same class as Boeing's 787. It's expected to hit the market by 2010.
"Airbus has got lots of things right," said aviation expert Horstmann. "Just 10 years ago, it was the small player, which Boeing didn't take seriously enough. But, in the meantime it has convincing offers in all segments of civil aviation."
When it came to aircrafts with a seating capacity of more than 100, Boeing and aircraft manufacturer McDonnell-Douglas which Boeing took over had a market share of 70 percent until the mid-1990s. But now with over 50 percent of the market share, Airbus is leading the way.
Horstmann doesn't believe that the balance will tip sharply.
"A two-way share of the pie is closer to a monopoly than one thinks," he said.
"They (Airbus and Boeing) may lower prices in individual instances, but they won't be in a cut-throat competition."