Thursday, January 26, 2006

Where's Shamu? Silence From Toulouse.

During the Paris Airshow of 2005 the Airbus A380 was decidedly the belle of the ball and the star of the show. Such massive quantities of Airbus aluminum flying in tight formation got the attention of nearly everyone except a few people at the Boeing works who, like master poker players, were no doubt then planning the introduction of the 787 at just the right moment to grab the spotlight.

And grab it they did with a technological tectonic shift away from metal airplanes that will rewrite the rule book in the commercial aircraft world as clearly as the shift to metal monocoque construction doomed the Curtiss Condor and the Fokker Trimotor in the 1930s.

After a summer of indecision, the answer from Toulouse was an expression of me-tooism, the A350, which competes right in the 787 slot-which also means that Airbus had concluded that there was, in fact, demand for smaller long range aircraft that would serve a more fragmented market, as Boeing had assumed and designed for. Of course, deliveries will lag two years behind the 787, and it's a derivative of the A330/340 so it isn't a rule maker.

Well. Boeing introduced the 747-8, which promises to siphon off a number of orders for very large aircraft that might have gone in the A380 column. Again, the master poker players in Chicago stayed their hand until it was time.

But ever since that flurry of interest and heavily discounted production slots that were flying off Leahy's order pad in the spring of 2005, nobody's ordered the A380. The order book has been stalled at 159 since the middle of last year, and that was before it was announced that deliveries would lag six months or more and when unscheduled engine changes on the flight test aircraft raised questions about the service entry readiness of the big Trent.

Airbus is doing a nice imitation of Greta Garbo when it comes to questions about weight, performance, delivery schedules, compensation for late deliveries and the vitality of the engine program. Why is that?

The Asian Aerospace exhibition at Changi next month should therefore prove to be most interesting for Airbus kibitzers. As a high publicity venue, the A380 could gain a much needed shot in the arm and a lot of free publicity if it lands some orders that are more than wishful thinking.

On the other hand, if the A380 does not land some substantial orders or present a coherent program that airline operators can hang their hats on, the future of the program could be questionable. Orders now on the books could evaporate if the program takes any more hits-I'm here to tell you that Singapore Airlines, for one, will not hesitate to cancel its orders if they do not get the answers they need. They cancelled an order for 20 MD11s under similar circumstances.

Time will tell, however. The airlines will vote with their dollars or euros as the case may be, and they will place orders for airplanes based on the market research that they are all busy doing. Is the data showing something nobody at the Toulouse crackhouse wants to talk about?


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