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Airbus looks for room to maneouvre the A380

Posted 27 September 2017 · Add Comment

The Airbus A380neo version will not be produced. But the European manufacturer has proposed ways to make the double-deck airliner more cost-effective for airlines. Alan Dron reports.

For several years now, Emirates Airline president, Sir Tim Clark, has been asking Airbus to launch a re-engined version of the A380, of which his airline is the world’s largest user.
The Dubai-based carrier operates 95 of the type, with 47 more still to be delivered, and has played a major part in keeping the A380 final assembly line moving. Fellow-Gulf airlines Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways have also been significant users of the A380, with 10 each in service or on order.
Airbus has made it clear that the costs involved in developing an A380neo are too great for an aircraft whose original version has sold slowly and the market for which would likely be even more limited.
However, Airbus believes it can make the existing aircraft more cost-efficient by rearranging its internal layout to allow up to an additional 85 passengers – all without impinging on passenger comfort, it claims.
At a media day in Toulouse, France, in June, it showed a model that could substantially cut seat costs for airlines, either on new-build aircraft or, potentially, as retrofits to in-service examples.
Some of the ideas had been suggested previously but the Toulouse event was the first time at which the full collection of proposals had been presented as a package.
John Leahy, Airbus’ chief operating officer, customers, listed the proposed measures, together with the number of additional seats each would generate:
• Going to an 11-abreast economy-class cabin from the current 10-abreast – 23 seats;
• Premium economy cabin at nine-abreast – 11 seats;
• New forward stairs – 20 seats;
• New rear stairs – 14 seats;
• Upper deck ‘door three’ deactivation – 8 seats;
• Removal of upper deck sidewall – 6 seats;
• Combined crew rest compartment – 3 seats.
Some of these measures are controversial. Although Airbus says it can get 11-abreast seating into the fuselage, this would mean returning to a central bank of five seats. Sir Tim has already expressed concerns about being able to sell the highly unpopular middle seat.
Nevertheless, employing at least some of these measures would improve the aircraft’s operating economics. Both the manufacturer and airlines have admitted that, when the A380 was initially introduced, they were so seduced by the vast amounts of space available to play with that they opted for unusually generous internal configurations.
The front stairs to the A380’s upper deck, for example, “doesn’t have to look like something off a cruise liner”, said Leahy. It could be made narrower and steeper, generating space upstairs. The rear spiral staircase could also be replaced by a straight version, reducing the volume it currently occupies.
Asked what further efficiencies could be applied to the A380 apart from the cabin, Airbus’ executive vice-president, head of programmes, Didier Evrard, said the overall weight of the aircraft had been steadily reduced over time. But he returned to the aircraft’s internal arrangements, saying: “There will be a big focus on the cabin. An extra 80 seats immediately gives you a big efficiency jump on the aircraft.”
A large model of the A380 on show at the event contained removable sections illustrating where increases in capacity could be introduced.
There are considerable variations in the number of passengers carried by the A380 in different internal layouts. Emirates, for example, has three versions, offering 489 or 517 seats in three-class layouts and a two-class option with 615 seats. Etihad’s aircraft can carry up to 489 and Qatar Airways’ 517.
Theoretically, the aircraft can carry around 800 passengers in an all-economy configuration. This has been suggested by several Far East airlines for Haj flights to Saudi Arabia.
Among other proposed modifications to Airbus’ flagship were engine efficiency improvements, while new winglets to aid fuel economy were mentioned as a strong possibility.
Among other Middle East-related topics discussed at the event was Pratt & Whitney’s PW1100G geared turbofan, one of two powerplant options for the A320neo. Early problems over engine start-up time and associated software glitches led Qatar Airways’ CEO, Akbar Al Baker, to walk away from at least four of the aircraft last year, saying he was not prepared to accept the aircraft with such problems.
Pratt & Whitney executives insist they have fixed the problems and the engine is now returning high reliability rates.
Evrard agreed that the engine start-up problem had been fixed, but added: “Now the issue we’ve been facing is a design maturity issue.” These, too, were being solved, but when a rapid ramp-up of production rates was under way he pointed out: “You can have some quality escapes. We’re working very closely with Pratt & Whitney. We have a big team deployed and connected to their supply chain and their factory.”
Over the past couple of years, problems with suppliers have led to aircraft being parked at Toulouse awaiting components, particularly from cabin equipment suppliers such as French seat manufacturer Zodiac.
Airbus chief operating officer and president of Airbus Commercial Aircraft, Fabrice Brégier, warned that cabin quality still did not always reach the required standard. Allied to this, customers were becoming more demanding, but this was hardly surprising considering the cost of the products.
“We have to find ways of improving quality and doing it faster,” he commented, warning that higher standards were being expected from suppliers that provided parts across the spectrum of Airbus products: “A supplier that is delinquent in Airbus Helicopters has no right to continue to work for Airbus Commercial,” he cautioned.
More positively, Brégier noted that predictive maintenance – undertaking repairs or replacements of components before they failed – meant that Airbus was getting closer to the goal of “zero aircraft on ground (AOG) incidents”.
Nor did he see the market for the A350 softening, despite the problems arising from the diplomatic breach between Qatar and several of its neighbours, which led to a closure of much of the airspace around the Gulf state. Qatar Airways has ordered 80 A350s. Production ramp-up of the advanced twin-aisle was continuing and was still planned to reach 10 a month by the end of 2018, he said.
 

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