The crisis in Airbus' widebody aircraft program has big implications for the world's two principal planemakers and for a handful of international carriers, but U.S. airline operators are offering a collective shrug.
Airbus said last week that its A380 deliveries would be delayed for a second time, raising fears about customer commitment to the controversial long-range plane that's capable of seating more than 500 passengers.
Investors fled the shares of European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co., which owns 80% of Airbus, and bid up the stock of competitor
For Airbus, the timing regarding the A380 delay was made worse by the fact that it comes as the company is also redesigning its proposed new A350 amid far greater enthusiasm for Boeing's planned 787.
To consultant Scott Hamilton, who publishes an online newsletter about Airbus and Boeing, it's no surprise that U.S. passenger carriers haven't ordered the A380 or for that matter raised any particular concerns.
"The A380 is not a North American airplane," Hamilton said. "It's for Asia and the Middle East." Though it's conceivable that
, the major U.S. carriers to Asia, could one day place orders, he said, the primary customers are international airlines like Emirates, Singapore Air, Malaysia Airlines and Qantas.
is the only U.S. customer for the A350, while
are the only U.S. airline operators with orders for the A380. And, of course, the latter two don't carry passengers.
The US Airways order is for 20 Airbus 350s with deliveries starting in 2012, but it's "not the issue du jour for us," Executive Vice President Scott Kirby said in an interview. "We have bigger fish to fry right now. We are comfortable with the path
Airbus is on. Everyone believes they will redesign the aircraft, and we think that's a good thing, just like other customers do."
To a degree, US Airways is a captive customer. During the bankruptcy of the former US Airways and its merger with America West Airlines, Airbus provided a $250 million loan, which has since been repaid, and allowed the new company to combine and delay orders by its two predecessors for 30 narrow-body A320s.
Meanwhile, both UPS and FedEx say they don't anticipate delays in their scheduled deliveries of the A380. UPS has ordered 10, and it has options for 10 more.
Airbus has assured us there will be no delays," said spokesman Mark Giuffre. UPS will use the plane on its long-range international routes, including its 21 weekly trips to China. "It's an aircraft with twice the amount of volume," Giuffre said. "That maximizes the efficiencies of the frequencies."
FedEx has also ordered 10 of the A380s with options for 10 more and expects to be the first U.S. recipient in 2009. "We have no indication from Airbus that there will be any more delays," said spokesman Maury Lane. FedEx has 26 weekly China frequencies.
As for midsized international aircraft, the Boeing 787 has shaken up everything in an area once dominated by the company's 767 and the Airbus A330. The 787, slated to seat between 225 and 300 people and to fly up to 8,000 miles, has already attracted about 400 orders, making it the most successful airplane Boeing has ever introduced.
The airplane even has its own brand name, "Dreamliner." With new engines, a lighter fuselage and less maintenance, it's supposed to cut operating costs by about 20%.
Two U.S. carriers,
and Northwest, have placed 787 orders.
wants to continue to build its long-haul international capability and is considering what aircraft it might order, said Henry Joyner, American Airlines' senior vice president of planning, in an interview.
"We're looking to see the 787 range and payload," Joyner noted. Added Hamilton: "If and when American, United and
get around to ordering, they will more than likely select Boeing."
Boeing expects to deliver the first 787s in May or June 2008. It plans to be building 10 a month soon after production starts, a faster rate than for any previous wide-body jet in the company's history, the
reported Monday. Eventually, Boeing could produce 14 to 16 a month.
The excitement for the 787 has stifled enthusiasm for the similarly sized A350, said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group.
"The 350 wasn't bad, but Boeing came up with the 787," he said. Now, the 350 will almost certainly be redesigned, Aboulafia said. "It's essential that Airbus compete there, in the midmarket class," he said. "The industry needs them so that the 787 doesn't run roughshod over everybody."
Next, the industry will wait to see if the reality of the 787 can match the promise. "Can they execute is the biggest question in aerospace," Aboulafia said.
"It remains to be seen whether all these promises can be met," Hamilton said. "That's the challenge of any paper airplane."