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Airbus casts doubt on A380's future

The airplane maker's chief salesman warns that the A380 program may end unless Emirates airline commits to ordering more of the giant aircraft.

Kent German/CNET

It's ginormous, it's a technological marvel that delivers a supremely quiet and smooth ride, but the future of the Airbus A380 is in doubt just 13 years after the double-decker first took to the skies. 

Airbus chief salesman John Leahy said Monday that the company would shut production of the aircraft if Emirates, the largest operator of the A380, won't commit to ordering more planes beyond the 41 aircraft it still has on order. To make the program viable, Leahy said Airbus would need to produce six A380s a year for a minimum of eight to 10 years and that Emirates is the only airline that could help it reach that goal.

Over the last decade, Emirates has kept the A380 program aloft almost singlehandedly. It uses its 101 A380s to fly passengers to Dubai and then to some other destination offering up the plane's posh amenities like premium class suites and onboard showers. With room for around 544 seats, the A380 is popular with passengers, but for most airlines it's more airplane than they need (the price for each A380 starts at $437 million).

Conceived in the 1990s when the economy was soaring and long-distance air travel largely shuttled passengers between megahub cities like London and Singapore, the A380 flew into a different world when the first aircraft finally entered service in 2007 after a series of production delays. 

The 2008 financial crisis coupled with changing airline business models -- smaller aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus's own A350 can fly fewer passengers between smaller cities and for less money -- caused demand for the A380 to be less than anticipated. 

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Airbus had initially projected 1,200 deliveries over two decades, but as of December it has delivered only 222 aircraft to 13 airlines with 95 orders still left to fill. 

First published Jan. 17 at 8:50 a.m. PT
Updated Jan. 18 at 4:08 a.m. PT: Emirates confirmed today that it would order 36 additional A380s for a total cost of $16 billion. deliveries of the new aircraft will start in 2020.

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