The Airbus A380 was supposed to be the future of aviation. Will it ever get off the ground?
The weather over much of Western Europe on September 4 last year was, in pilotspeak, severe clear – ideal conditions for the first flight of the world’s largest passenger aircraft with “civilians” on board. Carrying nearly 500 Airbus employees, the A380 took off from Toulouse, France, where company headquarters are located, and circled Europe for 7 hours while the volunteer passengers tested everything from video screens to plumbing. Although a few bugs were discovered, including excessive condensation and variations in cabin temperatures that will require tweaks to the ventilation systems, the A380 achieved what Airbus set out to do 18 years ago: fly more people far more comfortably than the iconic but now-ageing Boeing 747.
What dominated the news the following day, however, was not the near-flawless test flight but the fate of Airbus’s chief operating officer, Charles Champion. The highly respected, Stanford-educated aerospace engineer, who had shepherded the A380 project since the plane was put into production in late 2000, had just been fired.
Perhaps it was a relief. Five years ago, the A380 was being hailed as a turning point in aviation history – a plane that would reinvent air travel and leave Airbus’s rival, Boeing, in its wake.
Today, the programme is two years behind schedule and R15 billion over budget.
Airbus CEO Christian Streiff proposed drastic changes to put production back on schedule. Frustrated by corporate governance that impeded this strategy, Streiff resigned.
In a project of this magnitude, holdups and design changes are expected. More than 35 years ago, the first 747 rolled out of the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington, with 2-ton concrete blocks dangling from its wings because the engines weren’t ready. But the A380’s woes go far beyond the normal setbacks. Says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton of Leeham & Co, “A delay this big is really rare this far into the modern jet age.”
Critics say that the European Aeronautic Defence and Space company (EADS), the four-country consortium that controls Airbus, serves too many masters. On the one hand, EADS is shielded from the costs of bad business decisions: some experts estimate that, in the past 30 years, European Union taxpayers have shelled out more than R100 billion to cover cost overruns. On the other, the company is vulnerable to political pressures, which sometimes seem to call for bold technological statements. In the 1960s, another European consortium relied on massive subsidies to produce the Concorde, a supersonic aircraft at once technologically adventurous and economically disastrous. It was retired in 2003.
Will the A380 be the next Concorde – an engineering breakthrough with little chance of breaking even? Certainly, the problem the jetliner was supposed to help solve – airport gridlock – still exists. The world’s major hubs already operate at full capacity during peak hours, and traffic is expected to increase 4 per cent annually, from 4,2 billion passengers in 2005 to 7 billion passengers in 2020. Building new airports or significantly expanding existing ones, though, is a practical and political nightmare.
The Airbus solution: increase capacity with a plane that carries up to 900 passengers – nearly twice as many as the 747. “It is this big monster,” says Hans Weber, president of Tecop International, a San Diego-based aviation consulting firm. “And Airbus has struggled with the nightmare of making something this big economically efficient.”
Meanwhile, Boeing has gambled that the market is most interested in a fuel-efficient, midrange widebody that gives airlines flexibility. Its flagship project became the 250-passenger 787 Dreamliner, slated to go into service in 2008.
Virtually all experts agree that the A380 will eventually join the civilian fleet. (The plane’s maiden voyage – a planned Singapore Airlines flight to Sydney, Australia – was recently pushed back, again, and is now slated for late 2007.) But the problems facing the most expensive, ambitious nonmilitary aircraft project in history are mounting.
On the A380, nearly 500 km of cable and wiring are bundled into giant harnesses that carry data and provide the juice for everything from avionics to in-flight entertainment (see image). Such bundles are usually threaded through the skeleton of a plane before seats and other interior furnishings are installed. The basic wiring setup is then modified for each customer, depending on the selected amenities.
According to some observers, delays due to wiring modifications began when customers told Airbus they wanted their A380s to be outfitted less like cattle cars and more like cruise ships with wings. Some of the first airline customers – Singapore, Emirates and Qantas – opted for layouts that seat fewer than 500 people in three classes of service, roughly 100 more passengers than a typical 747 can accommodate. And, what seems to appeal most to airlines is that those passengers are spread out over 40 to 50 per cent more interior space than in any other commercial widebody. “It’s a real estate windfall,” says Singapore Airlines spokesman James Boyd.
But, to pay for that premium space, the airlines need to load up the A380 with amenities to lure high-spending travellers for whom comfort is more important than price. Many of these proposed features – television reception, Internet access, cellphone capability and casino gambling – require more complex wiring.
Airbus also allowed customers to request changes to the interiors while the planes were being built – a decision the company quickly realised was going to derail the production schedule. So it switched to “concurrent engineering,” constructing aircraft fuselages while working out design specifications with the airlines – a risky wager that Airbus lost. The delays were exacerbated when Airbus decided, well into the project, to save weight by switching from copper to mostly aluminium wiring.
To try to keep production on schedule, the company imported engineers and mechanics from its factory in Hamburg, Germany, to toil round the clock in Toulouse. But the extra manpower has not been enough: in June, the company revealed that wiring difficulties would delay deliveries by six months. Then, in October, it shocked the aviation world by announcing still more delays, this time up to a year. Airbus will deliver only one A380 in 2007, down from 25 in the original schedule. “It all goes back to customisation,” says Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects. “Airlines carried it as far as they could, and Airbus gave in.”
The A380 is the first large commercial plane in which the wing box is a combination of aluminium and a composite of carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. Composites, which have greater strength than metallic counterparts, have only recently become more widespread in commercial planes, although they are common in military aircraft. Composites have several advantages over traditional materials. “For one thing, they don’t corrode the way aluminium does,” Tecop’s Weber says, noting that metal fatigue has been implicated in a number of air crashes.
The ultimate advantage is to the bottom line. Lightweight composites and efficient engines mean the A380 consumes one-fifth less fuel per passenger than the 747. Some engineers believe the A380 is a turning point – the end of the metal age and the dawn of plastic planes.
Or not. In late 2004, at the Toulouse plant, Airbus mounted a 36-m specimen wing to scaffolding and began to run load tests to ensure that the component would be able to withstand conditions likely to be encountered during service. Once that limit-load testing was completed, the Toulouse team applied progressively greater loads to satisfy another regulatory requirement – that the wings offer a “factor of safety” one and a half times the prescribed limit load.
test last February, with a “deflection,” or upward flex, of 7,2 m, the wing reached its breaking point, snapping between the inboard and outboard engines. The failure occurred within 3 per cent of the target, so regulators did not require Airbus to repeat the test or modify this vital component’s basic design. “The tweaking we had to do was relatively minor,” says Thomas Burger, product marketing manager for the A380. Engineers added aluminium strips to stiffen the wing box, a component that keeps wings cantilevered.
But some experts think the A380 doesn’t go far enough in its use of composites. Boeing’s Dreamliner will be 50 percent composite – twice as much as the A380. “In a few years, the A380 is just going to be an old chunk of metal with old engines,” says Richard Aboulafia of the Teal consultancy group. “It’s almost last-generation.”
The heavier the plane, the bigger the wake vortexes – invisible tornadoes that spiral back from the wingtips, and then spread and linger behind the plane. In extreme cases, wake turbulence can flip a smaller plane.
In June, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a safety agency, recommended that all aircraft be held 1 additional minute before departing behind an A380, allowing more time for turbulence to dissipate. Spacing between an A380 and a following plane should be 10 nautical miles on final approach, the committee said, double that of other widebodies. ICAO recommended a 15-nautical-mile separation for all other phases of flight – nearly triple the distance required behind a 747.
Airbus countered with its own three-year study, conducted with the Federal Aviation Administration and Joint Aviation Authorities (Europe’s version of the FAA). Its recommendations included a separation of 6 nautical miles for heavy aircraft landing behind an A380, 8 nautical miles for medium-weight planes and 10 nautical miles for light planes.
ICAO does not have enforcement powers, but its recommendations are usually implemented by regulators and air traffic control organisations. If the agency doesn’t reverse itself, airports will have to allow more time between takeoffs and landings. At busy hubs, that will mean assigning the A380 the equivalent of two landing slots.
It would all but erase the chief benefit of the plane – the ability to carry more people into congested airfields.
Betting the company
The list price on the A380 is around R2 billion, but launch discounts (and, now, late fees), are rumoured to have reduced that significantly. Airbus now needs about 300 orders to break even; at press time, 16 airlines had ordered 159 planes. Some likely customers, such as British Airways, are delaying a decision until they see how the jet performs when it finally gets into revenue service. Airbus has essentially bet the company on a plane without any assurance that it will ever turn a profit.
Airbus believes that the market for aircraft that carry 500-plus passengers will be about 1 200 planes over the next 15 years. Boeing, which initially argued that the market is no greater than 350 planes, now seems to quietly agree that the world needs a next-generation jumbo. Its recent forecasts on the demand for jets in this category are far more bullish than its public pronouncements. “They are now saying that the market could be almost 1 000 planes,” notes aerospace consultant Scott Hamilton. “That means room for both Airbus and Boeing.”
Airbus was looking forward to having that market all to itself for several years before its American competitor could make a countermove. But the recent A380 delays have erased that advantage. Although Boeing’s focus is on the Dreamliner, the company has not forgotten its old standby. It has decided to keep the 747 production line going, with a new souped-up version of the plane – the 747-800.
Its passenger capacity? Almost as high as the A380’s.
When the A380 goes into service in late 2007, regulators may require dramatically larger separation distances because of the huge plane’s wake turbulence. Meanwhile, Airbus engineers continue to face manufacturing glitches even as they advance aviation technology.
Air traffic controllers require a landing separation distance of 6 nautical miles between the 747 and other planes to allow for dissipation of wake turbulence – a swirling, invisible vortex that can cause a trailing plane to rise, sink or roll violently. For the 560-ton A380, which is 30 percent heavier than Boeing’s jumbo jet, an international aviation safety agency is recommending a landing separation of 10 nautical miles. The ruling could mean each A380 flight would require two landing slots at already maxed-out airports – a potentially serious blow to the plane’s viability.
The highly complicated system – the plane has about 100 000 electrical links – is the single biggest culprit in delivery delays. To save weight, Airbus switched from copper to aluminium for 60 per cent of the wiring. But that required structural changes because aluminium has a bigger bending radius. Also, the computer program used in the plane’s digital design represented the wiring harnesses poorly, which led to production problems. In addition, delays meant wiring harnesses were installed after final assembly – a more time-consuming job.
>> Landing gear
During an August test flight, warning lights indicated jammed landing- gear doors. The aircraft set down safely; the problem is still being investigated. The world’s heaviest commercial plane, the A380 (full takeoff weight, 544 tons) lands on 22 wheels with less runway impact than the 747.
In February 2006, a wing failed a stress test; aluminium strips were needed to reinforce the wing box. Weighing up to 33 tons, the wing comprises 32 000 parts connected by 37 km of wiring and covered with sheets of aluminium so big that only one plant in the world (in Iowa) is equipped to produce them.
About a quarter of the plane’s structural weight consists of composites, including engine cowlings (above, orange), outer wing flaps (yellow) and the tail cone (blue). Other composite components not shown include the wing ribs, upper-deck floor beams, rear pressure bulkhead and unpressurised fuselage.
The A380 is the first plane to use a new composite called Glare – layers of aluminium foils and unidirectional glass fibres impregnated with an adhesive. Found on the tail assembly (red) and elsewhere, the lightweight composite represents a weight saving of at least half a ton.
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