W. C. Fields was one of Hollywood’s funniest “wise guys.” To provoke laughter, the comedian and screenwriter produced scripts that contained outlandish elements that pushed the envelope of credibility.
For instance, his 1941 film “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break” includes a seemingly ridiculous episode that takes place upon a plane, where passengers experience all of the amenities that might be available only on a cross-country train trip or an ocean luxury liner voyage – bedroom berths, spacious bathroom facilities, on-board bar room access, and a rear observation deck where they could sip their drinks outside while gazing at the passing landscape (or cloudscape, in this case).
Thanks to Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer, the concept no longer seems so comically ludicrous. True, that observation deck idea will never fly; passengers would be swept off the back of the airplane. But everything else has pretty much come true.
Headquartered in Toulouse, France, Airbus now offers the world – and its airline industry customers – a gargantuan aircraft called the A380. It’s not farfetched to call this world’s largest airplane the “Eighth Wonder” of the aviation world. The craft is so proportionally enormous – and so advanced as far as amenities – that passengers line up to buy a ticket merely to ride. Further, observers visit an airport to witness this winged monolith take off from a runway.
This $375-million “superjumbo” carries an average of 525 passengers on long journeys, and it offers them unprecedented comfort. Typically, a 12-hour flight is a hellish experience. Airbus is intent on making the travel time more heavenly. No one is shoved shoulder-to-shoulder in a single aisle, over-booked aircraft. The A380 is the most spacious airliner ever conceived, as it features two decks, connecting staircases, wider seats, additional floor space and broader aisles. Passengers can enjoy a full-service bar, the latest entertainment technology, and luxury suites, among other comforts.
All of this might amount to an outlandishly large, expensive and overhyped folly if it wasn’t validated by customer interest. With this new craft, Airbus has attracted the attention (and the business) of major global airlines such as Air France, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas. In turn, that interest has translated into positive passenger feedback and into significantly increasing bookings. According to the company – which is a division of European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), a global leader in aerospace, defense and related services – orders have risen to 234 from 18 customers throughout the world, as of May 2011. Increased bookings relate to the craft’s substantial benefits. The A380:
- Meets the most demanding emission and noise regulations;
- Is compatible with existing airport infrastructure;
- Demonstrates the lowest fuel consumption per seat in the large aircraft class;
- Increases airlines business by boosting customer traffic.
That’s why Airbus can describe the craft as a “game changer.” In the airline industry, logistics and economics are always changing, says Keith Stonestreet, product marketing director for the A380, “and we’re looking at industry growth, particularly in different parts of the world and in the next two decades. Currently, the US market represents about 28 percent of world travel. However, by 2030, it should only be about 20 percent. In the future, about a third of world travel – a significant percentage – will reside in Asia. Already, travel in the region has started to change the market, in terms of what people are looking for. The A380 relates to the changes, as the airline industry is looking to achieve a 20-percent improvement in operating costs. When we placed the airplane out there, we came in about 24 percent better than a 747.”
Simon Pickup, director of business operations for Airbus Americas, emphasizes that the A380 is one of Airbus’s first Asia-centric aircrafts. “When we looked at market demands for very large aircrafts, or VLAs, we knew it would involve that region,” he says.
Indeed, the A380 is providing the capacity that Airbus customers sought in terms of their growth, as well as the network distance that matches the world’s fastest developing links, and the economic benefits that enable an airline to realize a profit, adds Stonestreet.
“We not only take care of all of that, but we made sure that, with the A380, we addressed the issue of existing infrastructure,” he says. “For instance, in terms of air-field performance, a typical 10,000-foot runway, which is about the limit for a 747, is more than adequate for our plane. The A380 uses about eight percent less runway than a 747. Add to that the fact that we take on more passengers and fly about a thousand miles farther.”
Then there are the new aerodynamic standards that relate to larger aircraft entities. “The technology in the design needs to change, and this involves looking at new efficiency levels,” says Stonestreet. “The A380 provides better levels of airfield performance and fuel consumption, in an aircraft that has a lower power-to-weight ratio than traditional airplanes.”
Pickup adds a comment that places the larger picture into clearer focus: “In terms of size and capacity, the A380 represents an evolutionary move rather than a revolutionary one. To understand what I mean, you need to look back to 1969, when the 707 was supplanted by the 747. That was a huge increase – going from a 150-seater to a 375-seater. That was an enormous increment to toss into the airline network, but it was a move that sunk some of the earlier adopters.”
The A380’s profitability should prevent airline history from repeating itself.
The A380 took wings, commercially speaking, in 2007, and it enables Airbus to challenge Boeing’s dominance in the large aircraft market. “The A380 is a successful entry into that market and it gives us a product to compete with the Boeing 747,” says Pickup. “We expect a demand for about 1,740 VLAs between now and 2029.”
The plane made its maiden flight on April 27, 2005. On October 25, 2007, the double-decked, wide-body, four-engine plane made its first commercial flight, with Singapore Airlines, flying from Singapore to Sydney, Australia.
These aviation milestones followed more than a decade of development and a significant investment (about 12 billion euros). Development underscored Airbus’s ever-present customer commitment, its commercial savvy, and its wide-ranging technologic expertise and substantial manufacturing capabilities – not to mention the company’s foresight and readiness to adapt.
“Development started the day after the introduction of the 747-400, which made everyone wonder ‘what’s going to happen next,’” recalls Stonestreet.
It took about a minute for Airbus to come up with an answer. “We immediately started crystallizing a vision for future direction,” says Stonestreet.
This involved a consortium of about 25 airlines, as well as another important question. “We asked them what they would need in terms of an airplane for the next decade and even into the next century,” he relates.
They responded with a “wish list”: an aircraft that was 30- to 40-percent bigger, that provided a minimum of 15 percent better fuel economy, that best addressed economy of scale and that had a range that possessed about 1,000 more miles than the 747, as routes needed extra range (not to mention the passenger amenities).
“It took us nearly five years to integrate all elements into an aircraft that we could successfully launch,” Stonestreet says. “That occurred around 2000. A year later, we began taking first orders.”
All the while, the company continued developing a comprehensive product-line family that included the single-aisle A320, the wide-body, long-range A330 and A340 models, and the A350 XWB. Development of the A380 provided the capstone to Airbus’s ongoing efforts.
Manufacture of the A380 represents a global effort – or wings over the world, Stonestreet indicates. “As with any major aerospace business, our company – and aircraft production – is spread throughout different countries,” he says. “Final assembly is sectioned. In Toulouse, we take the main fuselage portions. Essentially, the aircraft comes into the factory in sections – the cabin, the wings and the horizontal and vertical stabilizers. Those components are converted into an operational airplane, with the addition of the landing gear, the power plant and the engine.”
From there, the developing aircraft is taken to Hamburg, Germany. “That’s where it goes into the paint shop and the cabin completion area,” continues Stonestreet. “From there it goes into the delivery process. So, production doesn’t involve just a single manufacturing center. If you analyze the manufacturing chain, you’ll see that individual fuselage sections come from different parts of the world. Some cabin sections come from Hamburg. Others come from Great Britain, Spain and France. Subcomponents come from Italy, the United States and the United Kingdom. But, basically, two primary factories are involved. From out of Toulouse comes a plane that can fly. From out of Hamburg comes a craft that can be delivered to a customer.”
The A380’s impact on Airbus has been just about as profound as the craft’s impact on the airline industry. “It helped us rationalize the thought processes related to company management, as the A380 represents a major program,” says Stonestreet. “As we progressed through the A380 development and production processes, we found that we were evolving – just as aircraft and the airline industry evolves. We grew from the ‘Airbus’ company of the late 1990s, which was essentially a management company, and into a company that encompassed program management plus commercial and product support.”
Previously, the manufacturing side was handled by shareholder companies. “Now, we’re a completely integrated company within the EADS organization, where we have our own production facilities and utilize the parent company’s own production assets. Our role has proceeded from management and into a complete program,” describes Stonestreet.
IS EVERYBODY HAPPY?
Feedback about the A380 is universally positive, reports Stonestreet. “Our customers are happy when their customers are happy, and the A380 makes passengers happy. That’s good news for airlines. It translates into dollars and cents.”
“Our research backs up their assertion that they realize a benefit,” says Stonestreet. “For example, Lufthansa has been flying the aircraft for a year. They replaced their 747s with the A380 on routes to Beijing, Johannesburg and New York. In the process, they advanced beyond an airplane that seated 350 and into a plane that could seat 520.”
Other customers got it. And if you don’t still get it, Stonestreet does the math: “Their planes were flying 90 percent full, so 90 percent from a 520-seat airplane means they were getting more than 100 percent on the airplane they were replacing,” he says.
That leads back to the W.C. Fields script.
“My dear, are you happy,” he asked his niece, who accompanied him on this cinematic transatlantic plane flight, one that that included the amenities and capabilities that only his feverish imagination could conceive, at least once upon at time.
“Oh, yes, Uncle Bill, I am very happy.”
That line indicates the happily ever after that Airbus, its customers and the airline industry passengers are witnessing.