Airbus admits its new baby is overweight

BATTLE OF THE BULGE: The A380 superjumbo is weighing in about 5 percent more than planned but a spokeswoman said it will be able to meet its fuel efficiency target


Wed, Jul 07, 2004 - Page 12

Airbus SAS conceded on Monday what aviation watchers have long suspected: The European aircraft maker's new A380 superjumbo has a weight problem.

According to the company's own projections, an Airbus spokeswoman said, the largest commercial airliner ever built will weigh 290 tonnes -- about 5 percent heavier than the previous target.

The figures were first reported in Monday's edition of German weekly Der Spiegel, citing internal Airbus documents.

"These are our working assumptions," Airbus spokeswoman Barbara Kracht said when questioned about the report.

The weight of an aircraft has a direct impact on its fuel efficiency, a key benchmark for airlines deciding what planes to buy.

But Kracht insisted that the A380 Airbus will still meet its fuel efficiency target -- 35km for 1 liter of kerosene per passenger -- when the plane goes into service in spring 2006.

"That remains the objective and remains what we will match," she said.

Airbus and US rival Boeing Co. are going head-to-head with very different visions for the future of commercial aviation.

Airbus -- which delivered more planes than Boeing for the first time last year -- sees a market for superjumbos carrying passengers via major regional and connecting flights. Boeing is staking its future on direct point-to-point routes serviced by its 217-seater 7E7 "Dreamliner," to be launched in 2008.

Both companies, however, are betting on improved efficiency to win over the airlines.

According to Kracht, Airbus could compensate for the A380's bulge by improving its aerodynamic performance to maintain fuel


"Even assuming it was slightly heavier but on the other side you have better aerodynamics, the end result is that you are meeting performance," she said.

Another option could be to squeeze more weight out of plane parts and furnishings such as passenger seats, galleys and toilets. But analysts say components have already been pared to a minimum, with lighter composite materials accounting for a full 20 percent of the A380.

"This is already the most composite-intensive plane ever built," said Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, a US consulting firm specialized in aviation.

According to Teal, the 290-tonne A380 would weigh in at 523kg per passenger, compared with 414kg for a Boeing 747-400. The A380's 656-seater version, to be launched later on, comes in at 436kg per passenger.

With an airframe built to carry up to 840 passengers, the A380's 555-seater version was always bound to have a weight problem, Aboulafia said, adding that the requirements of launch customer Singapore Airlines were another factor in its heavy design and 14,800km range.

"Normally you start with a baseline requirement and then stretch or shrink as necessary for the exceptional customer," Aboulafia said. "Here they've started with the exceptional customer."

Airbus already has 129 firm orders for the superjumbo from 11 airlines, and insists none will be disappointed.

"We know we're going to meet the performance guarantees we've made to customers," Kracht said.