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Europe

The Airbus Icarus moment

The crash of the Airbus A400M in Seville will delay the delivery of the transport plane yet again. It's a further setback for the troubled aircraft project that raises questions about pan-European collaboration.

The Airbus was aloft only three minutes before it

crashed Saturday

. Four crew members were killed and two more are currently being treated in a hospital with serious injuries. The cause of the accident is still unknown. What is certain is that the already sluggish delivery of the Airbus A400M Atlas military transport plane will lead to further delays.

New safety checks will be required

in the wake of the disaster.

The crash is the culmination of an ongoing series of breakdowns since the military transport plane first left the hangar. In December 2014, amid much pomp, the first production aircraft was handed over to the German military. But reports said German inspectors had found 160 defects. Some of these faults, they said, would cause "appreciable capacity loss."

The German air force had already steeled itself for delays when it became clear Airbus would be unable to meet its agreed delivery times. A report in March concluded "Full operational capability for the A400M, planned for April 2010, can now be expected in 2019 at the earliest, because the contractor still has to address significant challenges in solving deployment-related technical issues."

The complaints were not limited to Germany. In Britain, metal shavings were found in the plane's engine lubricant in 2012. Its four turboprops have also been a constant source of problems.

Slow plane coming

Airbus A400M crash site (Photo: REUTERS/Marcelo del Pozo)

The Seville crash was not the project's first setback

The crash in Spain will have immediate consequences for current production. Originally, Airbus Defence and Space had planned to deliver 22 aircraft this year. That number had already been cut to a maximum of 18 prior to the accident, due to insufficient capacity.

But now, Airbus must determine the causes of the crash before another aircraft can leave the production line. This will probably take several months to complete. Only then will the customers be ready to accept the plane.

These are not the first start-up difficulties that have beset the A400M: Technical problems and quality issues have repeatedly put it behind schedule. And costs have ballooned, by about 550 million euros in the last quarter of 2014 alone. Originally, around 20 billion euros were earmarked for the development of the aircraft. That has now reached almost 27 billion, most of which has been borne by Airbus itself.

Doomed to success

Nine countries originally signed up to buy the plane: Germany, France, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Britain, Turkey, Italy and Portugal, although the last two dropped out during the negotiations, fearing the high cost. In their place, Malaysia joined the consortium.

"The Airbus project typifies a number of projects beyond the means of a single state, and which are therefore supported by a number of countries," said Christian Mölling, an expert in international security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.

And while the crash in Seville is another setback, it is unlikely to put the future of the aircraft in jeopardy. "For the group of states backing it, the project is so big that it has to become a success," Mölling said in an interview with DW.

Carry that weight

Airbus A400M nose view (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

Militaries hoped to modernize their fleets with the plane - but are still waiting to do so

Even so, there's barely an economic case for the A400M. The European militaries originally ordered 225 of the heavy lifters. But some later slashed these numbers. For instance, Germany placed an initial order for 73 planes, but as costs rose it reduced this to 40. Overall, there are now only 174 planes on the order books. Airbus CEO Tom Enders says the project might just break even. But if more orders are trimmed, Airbus faces a losing proposition.

The A400M is a multinational project. This is also reflected in the way the aircraft is put together. The wings are produced in Britain; the fuselage, the loading ramp and the tail in Germany; the cockpit and the landing gear in France. The supporting structures and the engine nacelles are from Spain, where final assembly takes place.

Möllig says delivery will likely be delayed once again, presenting a further challenge to the European armed forces who had been counting on the Atlas. Transport capacity is an area where they fall short, he said: "The Airbus was supposed to solve this. If the Airbus is now also delayed, that puts them in a very difficult position."

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