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'Superliners' Carry Future of Air Travel
Airbus' double-deck A380 promises cheaper seats but requires airports to make costly upgrades
Jean K. Min (internews)     Email Article  Print Article 
Published 2005-01-24 16:50 (KST)   
The Airbus superliner A380
©2005 Airbus
Hauling up to 800 passengers at a time -- nearly as many as Korea's KTX1 bullet train -- the Airbus A380 superliner was unveiled on Jan. 18 at the Airbus assembly plant in Toulouse, France.

Having spent a total of 13.7 billion euros on development of this veritable hotel in the sky, Airbus needs to sell 260 aircrafts -- at US$280 million a piece -- just to break even. The news coming in so far, however, isn't bad.

Starting with Emirates Airline's purchase of 45 planes, 14 airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas, Singapore Airlines, Air France and Korean Air have placed firm orders for a total of 149 planes. At the presentation ceremony, Lufthansa said it was considering ordering additional planes to go along with the 15 it had already ordered.

With Boeing giving up on development of a plane that can be a direct competition to the A380, it appears the 747's 35-year reign as the world's largest civilian passenger plane has come to an end.

First class seats for the A380
©2005 Airbus
A380 Brings 747's dominance to an end

Boeing, which gave up on developing a model to replace the 747 in the superliner market, is pinning its fate to the 7E7 Dreamliner, a high-speed midsize aircraft.

Boeing appears skeptical if the market for "megaplanes" capable of carrying 800 passengers or more is large enough to recoup the gargantuan development costs. The company claims the future air passenger would prefer shorter travel times by taking planes directly from their departure place to their final destination, rather than waiting around several hours for connecting flights in crowded hub airports.

In this regard, the company believes the market prospect for express airliners that link cities and shave up to three hours off intercontinental travel time is brighter. Airbus doesn't consider Boeing's claim to be completely without merit. In addition to the A380, the European maker has also started development on the A350, which aims to compete with the Boeing 7E7.

With Boeing succeeding in nailing down a large number of advanced orders from ANA and other major Japanese airlines, it seems to have saved some degree of face. But as of now, just by looking at the number of orders, it seems that world airlines are favoring Airbus's future outlook concerning the airline market.

Airlines prefer superliners because with aircraft operating costs snowballing due to rising oil prices and increasing insurance premiums from terrorism, the operating costs of the A380 are expected to be about 15 percent cheaper than those of the 747.

Airlines also prefer the A380 because they sense that with intercontinental travel, which requires considerable airtime regardless, passengers would prefer to fly in more space and comfort rather than shave a measly two or three hours off their trip.

Emirates Airlines, a favorite with wealthy Middle Eastern passengers, said it plans to convert some of the A380s it purchased into first-class only planes to satisfy those who want to travel in splendor.

According to the airline, the plane would be a veritable "hotel above the clouds," with hotel-style private passenger rooms that have their own bathrooms where passengers can even take in-flight showers. The planes will even have pools and a bar.

Major airlines are also gravitating to superliners because the number of takeoffs and landings is restricted due to aviation agreements between nations. With major airports like Tokyo's Narita in a state of serious congestion, they cannot handle any additional flights.

In fact, British Airways, which runs many flights to New York, Paris, Tokyo and many other severely congested airways around the world, is investing US$8.4 million in terminal renovation alone at Heathrow Airport in order to turn it into a major hub for the A380.

The Boeing 7E7 Dreamliner
©2005 Boeing
Which way will the airline market turn?

It would seem that the success or failure of Incheon International Airport, which looks to establish itself as a hub airport in Asia, will be highly influenced by whether the market predictions go Airbus' way or Boeing's way. As is well known, the airport was designed with the A380 in mind.

From the position of Incheon Airport, which is striving to become a central hub airport in Northeast Asia attracting transit passengers heading to North America or Oceania rather than passengers departing from Korea, one has to hope for the success of large airliners like the A380.

An Incheon Airport official said the airport's runways were designed to handle the A380, and that all that is needed would be to add a few facilities and the airport would be ready to take the A380 at any time.

In fact, gates 17 and 37 at the airport are already designed to handle planes larger than the 747 -- the F class -- and with W6.5 billion in new gear installed, all one would need to do is add a second level to the jetways and the airport could begin handling the double-decker A380 immediately.

Incheon Airport is confident that it stands ahead of the world's other major airports in the race to attract big birds such as the A380.

If the market goes as Boeing hopes, however, and passengers prefer express travel to the cities in which they live, then the future of Incheon Airport would grow dark. This would be because it can't rely only on those passengers coming to Korea as a final destination, nor could it hope to increase its profits by attracting transit passengers.

If the seating configuration of the A380 is divided into first, business and economy class, the plane can carry 555 passengers, but if it is configured with economy class seats alone, it could haul up to 800. This is 1.5 times what a 747, currently the world's largest, can reasonably carry.

Airlines would then be able to fly passengers at a remarkably lower cost per head and sell correspondingly cheaper tickets. Depending on marketing strategies, the introduction of the A380 could really lower the cost of air travel down to dirt.

Industry observers agree that Boeing -- vexed by shareholders demanding immediate profit -- had no choice but to go down in flames in the war over future aircraft development. Airbus, on the other hand, weathered its enormous development costs and enjoyed massive subsidies from participating governments such as U.K, France, Germany and Spain.

The success of the A380 project may prompt Koreans to wonder whether Anglo-American capitalism, which has just about become Korea's de-facto economic standard since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, can continue to be a management model for Koreans to follow in the future.
Would you feel safe flying on the double-decker Airbus A380?  (2006-03-01 ~ 2006-03-09)
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