The A380 superjumbo has been thrown a lifeline after its biggest customer, Emirates, agreed to buy up to 36 more planes from Airbus.
The European airplane manufacturer had warned that without the deal, which had been long in the negotiation, it might have to close down its A380 production line.
The deal is the first large order for the world’s biggest passenger aircraft in more than four years.
Emirates has committed to buy 20 planes, with an option for 16 more, in a deal that would be worth up to $16bn (£11.5bn) at list prices, although the Gulf airline will have negotiated a substantial discount.
Fears for the future of the A380 had intensified after an anticipated order failed to materialise at the Dubai air show in November, with Emirates instead signing a deal with Boeing for 40 of the US manufacturer’s 787 Dreamliners.
Emirates has virtually single-handedly kept the A380 going: the latest deal means more than half of the planes ordered – 178 out of 353 – are operating in or destined for the Gulf. The airline firm took delivery of its first A380 in July 2008, and its 100th two months ago.
Announcing the agreement on Thursday, Emirates’ chief executive and chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, said: “We’ve made no secret of the fact that the A380 has been a success for Emirates. Our customers love it, and we’ve been able to deploy it on different missions across our network, giving us flexibility in terms of range and passenger mix.”
Emirates will replace some of its older A380s with the new planes.
Airbus said the deal would allow it to continue producing the A380 for at least another decade. John Leahy, its long serving sales boss, who had been chasing one last big deal before retirement, said: “I’m personally convinced more orders will follow Emirates’ example and that this great aircraft will be built well into the 2030s.”
The aircraft is built across Europe, with its wings manufactured in the UK at Broughton in Flintshire. Rolls-Royce is also a major supplier of engines, while landing gear and some of the avionics are also UK-built.
While Thursday’ order will give some reassurance to Airbus and its suppliers, questions remain about its flagship plane. In the autumn one of its A380s was taken out of service and mothballed in the Pyrenees, with its owner, a German leasing company, unable to find an airline willing to operate it. It is still more than two years since an airline other than Emirates has purchased an A380.
The capacity of the double-decker plane, which can typically accommodate 575 passengers, meant it was seen at its inception as a way of allowing congested hub airports to increase passenger numbers.
But the increased range of smaller, alternative planes such as the Dreamliner or Airbus’s A350 has dented sales of the A380. Despite its popularity with many passengers who have flown on it, only 13 airlines have so far flown the A380 and many have predicted its demise – not least, with some glee, Boeing.
Airbus has twice cut the production rate of the plane in recent years, now down to eight planes annually, although executives recently indicated as little as six would be a sustainable rate.
Overall, the European manufacturer has seen more success in the rapid sales of its smaller, single-aisle planes in the last year, particularly the A320neo. Airbus last week said that with a rush of December sales it had taken orders for 1,109 planes in total in 2017, again outstripping Boeing’s 912 orders.
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