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Airbus A380 rate cut may mark beginning of end for superjumbo

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Airbus Group SE announced a drastic cut in production of its flagship A380 superjumbo, acknowledging that demand has fallen far short of original projections and raising the prospect of the world's biggest passenger plane being prematurely axed.

[LONDON] Airbus Group SE announced a drastic cut in production of its flagship A380 superjumbo, acknowledging that demand has fallen far short of original projections and raising the prospect of the world's biggest passenger plane being prematurely axed.

The build rate for the double-decker, less than a decade in commercial operation, will be slashed by more than half to one plane a month by 2018, Airbus revealed Tuesday. Contrasting the success of the rest of the Airbus line, the company delivered the surprise damper just hours after pulling in several massive orders for its popular A320-type single-aisle jet at the Farnborough Air Show in the UK.

Having once predicted airlines would buy 1,200 supersize-planes over two decades, Airbus has settled into a far more modest reality and delivered only 193 A380s with 126 orders left to fill, some of them unlikely ever to materialise.

Interest has faded with the introduction of more efficient twin-engine wide- bodies, leaving Emirates of Dubai as the only carrier to fully embrace the giant aircraft's potential.

Even with Airbus seeking to reduce program costs to allow the A380 to remain viable at lower production levels, the severity of the planned rate cut - which Airbus says will put future output "in line with the current order intake" - suggests the program is on the brink of a terminal decline.

While a break-even rate of 27 deliveries achieved in 2015 should be cut to 20 by 2017, that's still eight more than Airbus is counting on in subsequent years, putting the plane in a perilous position regardless of jetliner unit chief Fabrice Bregier's declaration that "the A380 is here to stay."

"It won't recover from this," said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation consultant at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia.

"The new rate is seriously uneconomic; therefore it will die in a few years."

Popular with travelers because of its wide open spaces, even when filled with the regulation 550 seats, the A380 has been less of a hit with the world's airlines. While Emirates has ordered more than 140 of the planes and has around 80 in services, only two other operators, Singapore Airlines Ltd and Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd, have bought 20 aircraft or more.

Even large global carriers such as British Airways and Air France have ordered the A380 in much more modest numbers, deploying it as a flagship aircraft to be used on a handful of high-profile routes and for photo opportunities, rather than the mass-transit workhorse that Airbus had intended it to be. To most airlines, the A380 has remained an exotic addition at best, rather than the backbone of a long-distance fleet.

Not a single US carrier has bought the A380, and Japanese airlines, leading clients for older leviathans like the Boeing Co 747, have taken just a handful. The A380 is by far Airbus's most expensive aircraft, commanding a list price of US$432.6 million, though customers typically get steep discounts. There are so far no second-hand A380s in the market, making the plane's resale value hard for operators and leasing companies to predict.

New orders have been few and far between in recent years, with the A380 escaping an order blank for 2015 only when a deal for three planes announced by Japan's All Nippon Airways Co earlier this year was backdated.

Iran's outline deal for 12 A380s, revealed in January, lifted the gloom briefly, before the government in Tehran said it may not translate into orders for five years, and only then if the country decides it really needs the planes.

With no hint of further contracts and the A380 wowing crowds rather than fleet managers at this week's Farnborough show south of London, 2016 "looks particularly grim," said Hans Weber, president of San Diego-based consultancy Tecop International Inc, adding that he, too, views the rate cut as "the beginning of the end."

At the heart of the A380's failure is a bet taken by Airbus on the direction of global aviation, with the company arguing when pitching the model that global "megacities," increasingly crowded airports and Asian economic expansion would spur demand for legions of superjumbos across much of the planet.

It's a theme the company reiterated in Tuesday's release, saying the double-decker provided the "one and only solution for sustainable growth at congested airports."

Boeing saw things differently, suggesting globalisation would demand higher frequencies on trunk routes combined with a multiplicity of new services linking smaller cities - all best served by mid-sized wide-bodies. Its response was to build the 787 Dreamliner and update the best-selling 777 range. It's own 747-8, the latest iteration of its once popular jumbo jet, has met demand from buyers that is even more lukewarm than for the A380.

Airbus itself seems slowly to have been coming round to Boeing's view. The company long ago acknowledged that it would never recoup the A380's 25 billion euros (S$37.3 billion) development costs, but until recently was pressing airlines to endorse an engine-upgrade plan aimed at breathing new life into the program.

While Emirates was keen on the proposal, other takers failed to materialise and Airbus said in March the so-called New Engine Option might not come until the mid-2020s.

The Gulf carrier's president, Tim Clark, added last month that he'd all but given up on the upgrade and was more concerned that the A380 should survive in some form as Airbus focused on its own smaller A350 wide-body.

In detailing the production cuts Tuesday Airbus sought to indicate that all was not lost for the A380 program, and that the plane would effectively be kept on life support until aviation markets expand in line with its forecasts. And workers would be assigned to other, more promising programs within the Airbus divisions.

Mr Bregier himself has acknowledged that the A380 may have been premature, as air traffic around the world has yet to reach a level of congestion that makes it the obvious choice.

But should that time ever come, the giant double-decker will have aged to a point that it will look like an outdated idea, too costly for Airbus to sustain.