Will Airbus Announce an Upgraded A380 at Dubai?

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While a lot of potentially interesting deals could emerge from the Dubai Air Show that begins Sunday, the one most people are waiting for, and may not get, is a go/no go decision from Airbus on an updated version of its A380 super-jumbo passenger jet. Persian Gulf airline Emirates has been pushing Airbus to put new engines on the four-engine, twin-decked behemoth, but the aircraft company has resisted making a decision.

Most observers think Airbus will figure out a way to forego a so-called A380neo, both because Emirates appears to be the only customer interested in the new plane and because Airbus and rival Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) both have announced dual-engine planes that can carry up to 400 or so passengers on flights as long as 9,000 miles.

An A380 can carry up to 800 in a single-class configuration and more than 500 in a three-class configuration. In August, Emirates launched a 615-seat version of the plan that it plans to fly on a route between Dubai and Copenhagen.

The analysts at Leeham News say that the A380 is “the most economical aircraft one can operate if one can fill it to normal load factors.” According to Air Transport World, the highest load factor for the first three months of 2015 was 86.8% and the 25th best was 78.7%. For the sake of argument then, let’s assume a load factor of around 80% is “normal.” Using 80% of an A380’s capacity range, we get a capacity range of 420 to around 650. At the low end, of that range the difference is slight between the A380 and Airbus’s own A350 and the Boeing 777X.

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Boeing’s 747 owned the super-jumbo market for nearly 40 years, but the company believes the market for four-engine planes is drying up. In fact, the company said earlier this week that it will not alter the specifications on its 787-10 in response to questions raised by Emirates regarding the plane’s ability to operate at maximum capacity and range in the high temperatures of the Gulf region.

Boeing believes it has a solid competitor — in terms of operating costs — to the A380neo in the new 777X family. Boeing simply does not see a large market for jumbo jets. If a plane of that size and capability were still in demand, there would be some new orders. But there have been none in all of 2014 or 2015 (net). Airbus has received no new orders for the A380 in the same period.

In 2013, Emirates ordered 50 A380s and 150 Boeing 777Xs. No one is expecting that kind of action this year, but aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group told AINonline that it is still a possibility that Emirates could put in an order for up to 100 A380s at the Dubai show.

And what is the outlook for Boeing? According to Aboulafia, “The only additional Emirates orders would be to compensate for the cancelled A350s. They said they are looking at more 787s or A350s.” Emirates cancelled an order for 70 A350s in the summer of 2014 in what was clearly intended as a shot across the bow of Airbus to go ahead with the A380neo. Whether Airbus heeded the warning is what we expect to find out in Dubai this week.

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