More Setbacks for Airbus Superjumbo Jet


Toulouse, France, June 14, 2006 — -- Airbus suffered a double blow today in its attempt to fly the massive 555 passenger A-380 to world aircraft production dominance.

The European company confirmed more manufacturing and delivery delays of an additional six months to seven months, while the first airline to buy the biggest passenger plane ever built announced, in frustration, that it planned a significant order for rival Boeing's new, smaller 787.

Singapore Airlines, the industry's trendsetter and the first to buy the $300 million Airbus double-decker, said today that it planned to buy 20 of the 290-passenger Boeing planes at a cost of $4.52 billion.

Expressing unhappiness with Airbus, Singapore said it might seek additional penalty compensation for the delays, a standard practice in the airline industry. Singapore had ordered 10 of the A-380s.

Dubai's Emirates Airline, which ordered 45 of the A-380s, said curtly, "We are considering our position." Emirates had expected its first superjumbo this year, but won't see it until October 2007 at the earliest.

Australia's Qantas Airways, another big customer, expressed similar anger. All of the 14 passenger carriers that had ordered the plane had made future fleet and competitive plans based on the expectation of its timely delivery.

The A-380 would carry 35 percent more passengers than a Boeing 747 in a three-class configuration. It has 50 percent more floor space than the 747.

Airbus confirmed that it would produce only nine of the planes next year instead of the planned 25. John J. Leahy, the company's chief operating officer, blamed production bottlenecks.

It is the second announced delay. The first, according to industry sources, was necessary because the original model was too heavy -- heavier than the promised 560 tons. That meant the plane could not fly the distance promised, which was one of its main selling points to airlines who planned to fly it nonstop at least 8,000 miles

The first delay was also the result of the need to modify the plane's massive wings, which are nearly the length of a football field. Tests at first found the wings unstable.

In Toulouse, where the giant assembly building is currently finishing three planes for Singapore Airlines, officials say those early design flaws have been fixed. They are still testing to prove the turbulence the big plane leaves after it is not much bigger than the 747.

Recently, the International Civil Aviation Organization said other planes would have to keep a 10-mile distance from the A-380 to avoid being buffeted as they flew through the turbulence. That is twice the distance now required for separation from a 747.

The distance of that separation would run counter to the Airbus allegation that the big bird would require no special airport or air traffic control handling.

The A-380 has passed some positive milestones. The test versions have now flown 1,400 hours, and Fernando Alonso, the head of flight testing, said, "We are delighted with the behavior of the plane."

Alonso and other officials say these new delays will not postpone the certification process for the plane by the Federal Aviation Administration and other bodies.

Alonso also says more than 60 airports will be ready to handle the A-380 when it finally enters service, including New York's John F. Kennedy International and San Francisco International.

Pilots have shown that this huge plane, with its eight-story-high tail, has a takeoff speed when it is fully loaded of 155 knots, slightly less than the 747. Flight tests have shown the plane uses 2,000 fewer feet of runway to land than a 747, according to Alonso.

"We have demystified the issue of airport compatibility," he said.

The first production model is now at an Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany, where its seats and the rest of its interior are being installed. Singapore Airlines plans to carry only 480 passengers, fewer than the 555 planned by some other airlines. It is also much fewer than the 853 who were aboard for the successful evacuation test.

Clearly Singapore and the other airlines that bought the A-380 -- cargo carriers FedEx and UPS were the only U.S. airlines to order the plane -- are grumbling. Some are even talking about canceling their orders, according to industry sources.

Leahy, Airbus' chief operating officer, says penalty compensation is likely, but he does not believe Airbus will lose any orders. There are firm orders for 159 planes. Two hundred fifty orders are needed for Airbus to break even on its $12 billion investment in the A-380. There has not been a new order this year.

Boeing, meanwhile, has announced 363 firm orders for the single-deck, less-expensive 787.

Business Week is reporting that the 787 itself faces delays. Boeing says that because it is pushing state-of-the-art technology, some glitches can be expected. The company plans to begin flight testing the 787 next year.

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