The Airbus A380 Lands (Thud?)

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Yesterday the world’s largest passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380, flew from Frankfurt and landed in both JFK and LAX. It’s a strange thing: intellectually fascinating but devoid of emotion. As a boy I had a deep interest in the Concorde, arguably one of the most beautiful planes every made, but the A380 won’t be stirring any such emotions: it is one goofy looking plane. Like a regular Airbus that got punched in the eye and developed a swollen shiner.

a380engine.jpgStill, you can’t help be awed by the engineering feat. The thing is gigantic. CBC News has a little diagram that compares it to a 747 physically.

But it’s also a gigantic risk for Airbus, as well as for the airports that are remodelling to accomodate it (LAX has budgeted $121m to get ready for it, and they are not alone). Coincidentally, I’m reading John Newhouse’s book Boeing vs. Airbus, which is a lively romp through the long and tortuous rivalry between the two airplane manufacturing giants.

This business is about as high stakes as it gets, with massive degrees of uncertainty accompanying any decision. Airbus is betting that a super large plane is the future, while Boeing is betting on a Goldilocks strategy - a large but not so large plane known by the hyper-American name Dreamliner. Newhouse writes:

Its new airplane, Airbus decided, would be just as big as state of the art would allow. The assumption was that no airline would want another 747 if there was a bigger and newer jumbo on offer — that is unless Boeing decided to sell 747’s at giveaway prices. Still, recalled Hanko von Lachner, a longtime Airbus board member, “we didn’t really know at that stage who was right or wrong, ourselves or Boeing. In our business case, we assumed that we wouldn’t be alone in this market fora  long time. Boeing, we thought would react with an improved 747. We even prayed they would spend their money on the wrong airplane.” 

Boeing and Airbus are going very different routes with their new airplanes (though Boeing has toyed with the Very Large Airplane idea on and off for years). Only time will tell who decided, or lucked into, the right course of action.