THE new venue for Dubai’s international air show, which opened on November 17th, is yet another testament to the ambitions of the tiny Gulf state. Al Maktoum airport, when fully operational in 2027, will handle 160m passengers a year on five runways. And it will operate in tandem with Dubai’s older airport, which is closer to its centre and currently welcomes 60m travellers a year. The punt on continued growth in demand is also reflected in the big orders for new planes that the region’s airlines announced at this week’s show.
Emirates, Dubai’s flag-carrier, led the way by ordering 150 of the 777X, a forthcoming revamp of what is currently Boeing’s best-selling long-haul plane. The deal is worth $US76 billion at list prices. Boeing also landed orders for 75 more 777Xs from the two other fast-growing “superconnectors” in the Gulf region, Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad. Boeing’s archrival, Airbus, won Emirates’ endorsement of another big bet in aviation. The airline ordered 50 more of the A380, a super-jumbo launched in 2007 in the hope that carriers would want a plane even bigger than Boeing’s ageing 747.
Orders for the giants have stalled in recent years, however, even as demand for smaller jetliners has hit new highs. In 2011 and 2012 there were just over 50 orders for the biggest jets, mostly A380s (which typically carry 525 passengers), and a trickle for Boeing’s latest version of its jumbo (which seats 467). Until now there had been no firm orders this year. Emirates has 38 A380s in service and is seeking 100 more, accounting for half the entire market so far.
Emirates’ enthusiasm aside, views on the A380’s prospects are divided. Some analysts see it as suitable for only a few airlines on a handful of routes. Others see it as the best solution to the expected huge increase in passengers flying between the most congested hubs. Boeing, whose 777X will seat 350-400, not surprisingly sides with the doubters, reckoning there will be demand for just 700 or so planes with 400-plus seats in the next two decades; Airbus reckons on double that amount. The most pessimistic pundits maintain that the European firm will sell no more than 300 of its behemoth. Orders for the 747 are unlikely to revive.
The doubters say the main benefit of the A380’s size, its lower cost per passenger-mile, is overstated: passengers want frequent departures at main hubs, and direct flights between smaller airports. Both of these require large fleets of midsized planes, not small fleets of giant ones.
Perhaps only the Gulf’s three superconnectors, linking the most popular destinations in Europe and Asia via their home hubs, will want big fleets of A380s. Lufthansa, Air France and British Airways have already ordered as many as they will need for the foreseeable future, reckons Rob Morris of Ascend, a consultancy. They will fly them from airports with scarce take-off slots, on a few busy routes for which departure times are restricted by the need to arrive at a reasonable hour.
Emirates could have a further reason to be keen on buying so many A380s. Andrew Charlton of Aviation Advocacy, another consultancy, thinks that its big order may give Emirates influence over the design of future Airbus planes, such as its forthcoming A350-1000, a 369-seat rival to the 777X. Emirates wants its range to be even longer than is currently planned, since it is a long way from Dubai to America. It would also like just a few more seats.
Accusations that the A380 is a niche product rankle with Mark Lapidus, boss of Doric Lease Corp, an aircraft-leasing firm which has 22 of the super-jumbos and plans to order 20 more. He insists that if worldwide air travel keeps growing by 5% a year, as several forecasters expect, and if main hubs get ever more congested and fuel stays dear, airlines will surely come to see the wisdom of choosing the biggest plane their money can buy.
Airbus is sticking to its target of breaking even in 2015 on a plane thought to have cost it $US15 billion to develop; so far this looks optimistic. But it is not impossible that it will turn a profit one day. Sandy Morris of Jefferies, a bank, points out that the peak year for orders of the 747 came nearly 25 years after it first took to the skies. Airbus’s A330 took 15 years to hit the heights and had no orders in 1994, six years after its launch. But until an airline other than Emirates starts to order the A380 in significant quantities it will be hard to make the case that it is a soaring success.
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