When Singapore Airlines Flight SQ380 took off on Oct. 25, 2007, the airline opened a new chapter in the history of commercial air transport. Finally, after more than 37 years, an aircraft significantly larger than the Boeing 747 entered service—the Airbus A380. But unlike the case of its famous predecessor as the world’s largest aircraft, even after eight years in service it is still unclear whether or not it has a bright future. 

While the aircraft has won praise from both operators and passengers for having raised the bar in terms of passenger comfort and is now meeting its service reliability targets, the recent lack of orders is a significant medium-term threat for the program. Production appears to be secured in the short term, albeit at lower levels than Airbus had planned. 

Airbus is pondering what changes— whether these are fine-tuning or more substantial—might make the aircraft attractive to more operators. Among the things being considered are, most prominently, reengining the aircraft to launch the A380neo, as well as less spectacular modifications to the cabin that would allow airlines to carry more passengers with the existing aircraft, thus reducing unit costs. 

Until the market knows where Airbus is headed with the A380, decisions about major new orders appear to have been shelved by the relatively small group of large international airlines that could be considering them. Airbus nonetheless claims it expects to add to the A380 customer list before the year-end. One forum to do so would be the upcoming Dubai Air Show in November, although Emirates’ lobbying for the A380neo appears to have been unsuccessful so far.           

Airlines have placed orders for a total of 317 aircraft, leaving the manufacturer with a backlog of 146 aircraft yet to be delivered (as of September 2015). The orders have to be put into perspective with the 42 firm commitments for Boeing’s 747-8 Intercontinental, the only other large four-engine widebody on offer. 

Airbus has delivered 171 A380s since October 2007. The aircraft have flown 105,000,000 passengers on almost 280,000 flights, carrying an average of 375 passengers per flight. The A380 fleet is flying in excess of 13 block hours per day on average and has been meeting the operational reliability target of 98.5% of late, particularly in the rolling three months period to August 2015. But the aircraft has had more than its fair share of troubles: VH-OQA, the first A380 — delivered to Qantas — suffered an uncontained failure of one of the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines on takeoff from Singapore on Nov. 4, 2010, severely damaging the aircraft’s wing and fuselage while in flight. 

However, the most serious and costly longer-term disturbance has been the extensive modification program for 122 A380s that needed to have wing rib-feet and ribs strengthened following the discovery of cracks in the original design parts. There were several causes for the wing-component cracking problem. One was the use of a specific aluminum alloy (7449) and its heat-treatment process. The alloy saved weight, but the processing rendered the component more brittle, causing cracking. Another was in the process of attaching the wing skin to the ribs, where excessive loads were placed on components during assembly. The situation was compounded by failing to account properly for temperature-induced material expansion and contraction during operations. 

As part of the retrofit, Airbus is replacing ribs using more-conventional Al 7010, which is well-proven in aerospace applications. The retrofit goes beyond the areas where cracks have been found and also includes ribs 48 and 49 at the outer end of the wing. The retrofit includes replacing all of the 23 hybrid ribs (made of a mix of 7449 aluminum and composite) with all-metallic ribs made of 7010 alloy. The rib-feet have also been redesigned to strengthen them, and an inspection manhole in the area where the cracking occurs has been reinforced as well. 

Operationally, the issue is still causing some disruption. Aircraft need to be taken out of service for eight weeks at a time or for several shorter periods in case airlines decide to make the modifications in several steps. And a set of checks and, if needed, interim repairs, is currently required after as few as 500 cycles for aircraft that have not yet received the retrofit. According to Airbus, 90% of the affected aircraft have by now undergone the rework. The manufacturer has targeted completionof the task by the end of 2015. New aircraft have been delivered to airlines since early 2014 with the modified wings. 

Airlines are currently flying the aircraft on 100 different routes. Most are long-haul missions, although there is some limited use of the aircraft on shorter sectors such as intra-Asia or Qatar Airways’ Doha-Jeddah service. While the aircraft can fly ultra-long-distance missions given its nominal 8,200 nm range, a significant part of its utilization is for shorter routes: All three Middle East-based operators—Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways—are using the A380 extensively for European routes, typically missions of 6-8 hr. But there is also Qantas’ Sydney-Dallas flight, currently the longest commercial route worldwide, and Emirates’ Dubai-Los Angeles service. 

More new service will be added in the coming months: British Airways will introduce the aircraft on the London-Miami route on October 25. Emirates will fly it from Dubai to Copenhagen in December, which is when Korean Air will also add new service from Seoul to Bangkok and Sydney. Air France plans to use A380s on its Mexico City route from January 2016, and British Airways will deploy it for the Vancouver market in May of next year. A total of 12 new routes have been opened in 2015, significantly less than the 27 new markets that saw the aircraft arrive in 2014. 

Emirates, by far the aircraft’s largest customer with 140 on firm order, will take another 21 units next year. The Copenhagen route will be the first to receive the airline’s new two-class configuration of 617 seats after first class has been dropped on the subfleet. Fifteen A380s will have the higher-density two-class interior installed. 

Airbus also is working on higher-density layouts to make the aircraft more attractive and competitive with newer- generation twin-engine widebodies such as the 787 and A350. The latest initiative are possible changes to the arrangement of the rear staircase. The new staircase would use up less space ahead of the rear pressure bulkhead, allowing filling in the freed-up space with parts of the galley. Airlines could add 14 more economy seats on the main deck, Mark Pearman-Wright, Airbus’s head of corporate and investor marketing says. The potential reconfiguration is still only a project in the study phase and no decision has been made about moving forward with it. The idea is, however, being discussed with customers. 

The study is part of a broader move to increase the seat count on the aircraft. Airbus is now offering an 11-abreast configuration on the main deck, which would add around 30 more seats, but this has not yet been picked up by any of the operators. Separately, it is proposing to remove the front mezzanine flight crew rest, which would allow it to move the galley forward and add six-premium economy seats. 

On the upper deck, Airbus is now offering the option of removing the sidewall bins. Airlines can then install herringbone seats in more dense business-class arrangements. That would increase capacity in business class by ten seats. 

The new features are available on newly ordered aircraft, but they can also be retrofitted, albeit some of them incur significant modification costs. The changes currently on offer increase the A380 seating capacity from the nominal 525 in three classes to 544 in four classes. Changing the shape and footprint of the staircase would move capacity up to 558, with all other parameters remaining unchanged.           

Optimizing the existing aircraft is also Airbus’s way to buy time in the broader discussion about whether or not it should launch the A380neo, using latest-technology engines. That move has been heavily promoted by Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline, but it has not found significant backing elsewhere. Clark has made clear that the airline would buy at least another 100 aircraft if Airbus developed the new version, although the manufacturer has more recently tried to push the decision further to the right. Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders effectively ruled out a launch before the end of 2015 earlier this year, diminishing Clark’s hopes that he could still convince Airbus of going ahead. 

The uncertainty over future A380 versions is a further impediment to Airbus’s efforts to add to the A380 backlog. As long as potential customers have no clarity about product evolution, it makes it harder to commit to the aircraft. On the other hand, a launch decision soon would potentially entice customers with existing backlogs to convert their orders for the current version to the A380neo, something that Airbus can have little interest in, given all the work that is already needed to keep production rates at a sustainable level. 

Airbus will also have to weigh whether it should stretch the aircraft while reengining it to go for even lower unit costs, an idea that has two backers among its customers: Emirates and lessor Amedeo. 

The decision Airbus is facing could not be more difficult. It will already take decades for the investment to be recovered, at best. From a financial point of view, an A380neo would only make sense if management can be reasonably certain that the aircraft will easily recover the additional investment in an acceptable time. 

The market trends are not working in favor of big aircraft: Airlines have been risk-averse in terms of long-haul capacity planning for some time, and the arrival of ultra-efficient long-haul twins has “put pressure on bigger airplanes”, AWAS Chief Commercial Officer Marlin Dailey points out. In other words, the incentive for airlines to opt for bigger capacity to drive down unit costs is becoming much smaller. Airbus’s cost figures, of course differ: The manufacturer says the current A380 with 544 seats has an 8% cost advantage per seat over the A350-1000, 43% over the 747-8, 37% over the Boeing 777-300ER and 15% over the Boeing 777-9X (at 387, 343, 278 and 311 seats, respectively). 

There are more short-term challenges as well. The A380 backlog currently stands at 146 aircraft, enough for around five years of production at current rates. But Airbus already had to digest the cancellation of an order for six aircraft by Skymark, three of which have been essentially completed. And more trouble is ahead following the collapse of Transaero, which has four aircraft on firm order. There are also increasing doubts about the viability of the Amedeo order for 20 aircraft. Virgin Atlantic has made clear more than once that it is unlikely to have a requirement for the six units it once ordered. 

Malaysia Airlines is trying to dispose of at least some of the six aircraft it has already taken delivery of. And lease renewals for the first five of Singapore Airlines’ 19 A380s become due by 2017. The airline says it has not made a decision yet and could well extend the contracts, even though it has another five on firm order and would therefore opt for significant fleet growth if it extends the leases. If it does not, the second-hand market for A380s would be opened in earnest.