The A380 may keep flying in China’s skies

Beijing to reward fat orders for technical cooperation as the nation needs more super-jumbos

ByFrank Chen

The A380 passenger aircraft is already flying into the sunset, after its maiden flight merely a little more than a decade ago.

Airbus made a wistful announcement this week, saying it would ground the program and halt production in two years before any of the double-deck superjumbos already sold had reached their half-life point.

The A380’s journey from conception to carrier had been bumpy, lurching from cost overruns, delayed delivery to tepid reception, and the prospects of the plump iron bird capable of hauling up to 868 passengers in one-class configuration were buoyed solely by Emirates in recent years, which has a fleet of more than 100 A380s.

Now there have been reports in China and abroad that cash-rich state-owned Chinese companies eager to include more far-flung destinations into their networks are ready to save the A380 with volumes of orders in the coming years.

So far, the Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines, Asia’s largest carrier by fleet size, is the only airline in the nation that flies the aircraft, with five A380s delivered between 2011 and 2013 plying its lucrative Beijing-Guangzhou trunk route as well as long-haul services to North America and Europe.

Xinhua reported that Beijing signaled more orders for A380s and its medium-sized sister plane the A350 during Chinese Vice-Premier Hu Chunhua’s talk with French Economy and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in Paris in December, in exchange for China’s increased involvement in Airbus’ research and development and production.

That said, the latest assurance of new orders is far from fruition, pending the state of the much broader Sino-European ties. Some analysts say Chinese carriers most probably would not order the A380 if these orders were left entirely to them to decide, as they “need help with yield, not volume” and that they have options to procure smaller, more fuel-efficient jets that can also fly between continents.

Very large aircraft have a small footprint in China. Other than China Southern’s five A380s, Air China operates seven 747-8s, while China Eastern has neither of the two. Yet others forecast bright prospects for the A380 as China’s airspace for civil aviation is becoming congested, so deploying the big plane to fly more passengers in one go among key hubs makes economic sense.

The fact is that orders for big aircraft would always be profoundly political in China.

Airliner Watch reported that the reason Airbus could sell three A380s to Japan’s All Nippon Airways was its support for ANA’s takeover of the bankrupt A380 customer Skymark Airlines against the US rival Delta.

Airbus will need to embark on a technology-for-order strategy if it wants to strike more big-ticket deals with Chinese customers. The European aviation giant operates an assembly plant in Tianjin in northern China.

CNBC also speculated in early 2018 that China could invest in the struggling superjumbo program as it tried to develop aerospace knowledge and glean technical experience of how a big aircraft is built. China has already been working on an indigenous wide-body jet.

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