Airbus SAS’s A380 superjumbo, designed to carry 500 people per flight between the world’s biggest airport interchanges, is carving out an unexpected new market with direct travel to non-hub cities.
Singapore Airlines Ltd., the first company to operate the A380 in 2007, is cutting costs by using the plane to reduce the number of flights to Zurich without slashing capacity. Gulf carrier Emirates has deployed it to Manchester in northern England, adding seats without the expense of extra services.
More than 70 airports are equipped to handle the A380, which has a 262-foot (80-meter) wingspan and is 239 feet long, with Munich and Berlin among non-hubs seeking to secure flights from the five carriers that operate the plane and the 10 others with orders. The development is a boost for the Airbus flagship, which has won only one new airline buyer since it first flew.
“The A380 was designed as a replacement for the 747, but as it’s deployed we’re finding that the execution is very often different than the forecast,” said Chris Tarry, an independent analyst in London who has followed the industry for almost 30 years. “Airlines need to match capacity with demand, and if you want to move lots of people in one go the A380 does just that.”
Of the 20 destinations that the A380 currently serves, six -- Manchester, Zurich, Auckland, Melbourne, Montreal and Jeddah, the second-largest city in Saudi Arabia -- are absent from Airbus’s list of what it predicts will be the top 20 airports for the plane.
For flights from smaller cities the A380 works best as a “strategic tool” when there’s no need for a high number of daily frequencies, Richard Carcaillet, Airbus’s marketing director for the model, said in an interview.
“It’s logical to use the A380 where there’s the potential to increase traffic with one well-timed flight that catches the peak of demand and reduces your spill, or traffic that’s left behind because an aircraft is too small,” the executive said.
Emirates, the No. 1 A380 customer with 13 in its fleet out of 90 on order, began operating the superjumbo to Jeddah four times a week in February, switching to a daily service in June.
Manchester was added to the network last month, with the A380 replacing one of two daily Boeing Co. 777s and funneling a potential 525 more people a week to the Dubai hub the carrier is building as a rival to airports such as London Heathrow.
“There were some very clear traffic flows which were calling for the A380,” Emirates Chief Executive Officer Tim Clark said in an interview. “The seat factors on Manchester flights were very high, which required an increase in gauge.”
The coming of the A380, which attracted 20,000 spectators for its first flight to Manchester, is “massively important” and was secured at a cost of 10 million pounds ($15.9 million) in upgrades, said Andrew Harrison, the airport’s managing director, who is hopeful the remaining 777 service might be switched to the superjumbo.
Manchester, which handled 22 million people last year, ranking it fourth among U.K. airports, had initially regarded Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner as a more likely candidate for flights because the model is smaller and designed for direct services that don’t involve hub transfers, Harrison said in an interview.
“We always talked about the Dreamliner being potentially more our kind of aircraft,” he said. “It would support longer haul and what we call in the business ‘thinner routes.’ But the Emirates route has proved to have loads of demand.”
Emirates’ Clark says “similar points” in Germany, France, Asia, South Africa, Italy and China could support the superjumbo and lists Hamburg, Munich, Dusseldorf, Rome and Milan as possible destinations for the future.
Singapore Airlines deployed the A380 strategically in March when it replaced 12 weekly Boeing Co. 777 flights to Zurich -- which ranks as Switzerland’s biggest city but isn’t among the largest 150 in Europe -- with a daily superjumbo service.
With the 777 seating 278 people and the A380 some 471, flights were reduced at a cost of 39 seats a week, maintaining feed to Singapore for connections across Asia and Australia while allowing a spare Boeing to be used for services to Munich.
“This is operationally more efficient as mounting more flights carries incremental costs for landing, parking, over-flight and air traffic control, as well as for a full set of cabin and technical crew and additional fuel consumption,” said Nicholas Ionides, a spokesman for the carrier, which is the second-largest in the world by market value.
Among secondary airports identified by Clark as likely A380 destinations, Munich, which opened in 1992, is “well prepared” for the superjumbo, having been built with a plane of its size in mind, according to spokesman Peter Pruemm.
The model has operated test flights to the south-German city “several times,” though no airlines have plans for scheduled services this year or next, he said.
Berlin’s new airport, which opens in June 2012, will have a gate that is A380 compatible and is expecting to receive flights, said spokesman Leif Erichsen. Berlin is almost unique in being a capital city while lacking a major hub, with long-haul German flights focused on Frankfurt, he said.
Airbus, which is owned by European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co., markets the A380 as more fuel-efficient than older, smaller jets and says it helps alleviate congestion at major airports. EADS was trading down 5.5 cents, or 0.2 percent, at 17.82 euros as of 1:18 p.m. in Paris, paring gains this year to 26 percent and valuing the company at 14.5 billion euros.
Airlines that operate the superjumbo -- which include Air France, Deutsche Lufthansa SA and Qantas Airways Ltd., as well as Emirates and Singapore Air -- say the plane is also creating its own market, luring flyers with a double-decker layout and on-board perks such as first-class cabins and cocktail bars.
According to Airbus’s projections the five busiest airports for so-called very large aircraft by 2028 will be Hong Kong, Heathrow, Beijing, Dubai and Tokyo Narita, with 12 of the top 20 located in the Asia-Pacific.
David Gamper, Geneva-based director of safety and technical affairs at the Airports Council International group, said the A380’s natural home may be “thicker hub-to-hub routes,” but that it will “migrate to thinner routes” as deliveries mount.
“There are a lot of airports around the world which can accept the A380, usually with very little modification,” he said in an interview. “And more will need to accommodate it simply due to the number of airlines getting the plane.”