A380 superjumbo’s ‘cruise ship’ staircase may be consigned to history

As the European plane maker Airbus predicts a drop off in new orders for the huge double-decker, it may redesign one of the most eye-catching features of the plane.

Emirates Airline stewardesses at the foot of the A380 superjumbo's cruise liner-style staircase. Airbus may do away with the hallmark feature to boost capacity and efficiency in new models. AP Photo / Manish Swarup
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Airbus is considering doing away with one of the hallmarks of its A380 superjumbo, a “grand staircase” echoing the era of cruise ships, as it looks to revive sales of the world’s largest airliner, according to industry insiders.

The idea of a slimmed down staircase, as well as adding fuel-saving wingtips, is aimed at lowering the operating costs and boosting its fuel efficiency of the huge double-decker, a mainstay of both Etihad Airways and Emirates.

The provisionally dubbed A380-Plus makeover would add 40-50 seats to increase the standard interior’s capacity to more than 600 seats, which would help airlines reduce their costs per passenger.

To make room for those extra passengers, the A380 would do away with the double-width staircase at the front of the plane in favour of something more compact. The narrower spiral staircase at the back would also be modified.

Airbus officials declined to comment on the plans, which have yet to be finalised and approved.

“Airbus is always studying opportunities to improve our aircraft,” a spokesman said.

The sweeping staircase is one of the first features passengers see on boarding an A380 and captured attention when the A380 was first rolled out as a “cruise ship of the skies” in 2005.

However, sales have fallen in recent years due to advances in smaller twin-engined jets, which cost less to fly and maintain.

To help on the A380, the addition of vertical wingtips, more typically seen on smaller narrow-body jets, would cut fuel consumption by reducing drag.

The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the makeover would improve fuel efficiency by around 2 per cent. They said the changes may also be available as retrofits to existing A380s, but that this had not yet been decided.

The design changes would add about three tonnes to the A380’s maximum take-off weight, leaving more room for payload or fuel.

Airbus recently shelved plans for a bolder upgrade of the A380 involving new engines due to cost, and announced plans to cut output to one a month due to poor sales.

Airbus expects the jetliner industry to book almost 30 per cent fewer net orders in 2017, but to maintain a slow increase in deliveries, its sales chief said on Monday.

Airbus expects to have access to some European export credit financing on a “case by case” basis in 2017, said John Leahy, the chief operating officer for customers.

European Export Credit agencies (ECA) suspended financing for Airbus deliveries in 2016 amid a UK investigation into the use of sales agents.

“I would be expecting that we will get ECA cover on a case-by-case basis this year,” Mr Leahy said.

Speaking on the sidelines of the Istat Americas air finance conference, Mr Leahy said Airbus would need until at least 2018 until it recoups production levels it had originally planned for its A320neo jetliner following production problems at engine supplier Pratt & Whitney.

“I think Pratt has been frustrating. We are certainly capable of delivering the airframes the moment we have engines. The good news is the engine is meeting and exceeding our expectations,” Leahy told Reuters.

Beyond the new tweaks for the A380, the health of the programme depends on getting costs low enough so that Airbus can keep output ticking over at 12 a year without losing money, while it waits for what it hopes will be a rise in demand as air travel grows.

“The time will come for the A380,” said Mr Leahy.

Airbus is due to unveil a dedicated online booking system for A380 flights at a Berlin show later today.

The European company’s US rival Boeing argues the time for very large four-engined jets, such as the A380 and its own slow-selling 747-8, is ending.

In the short term, Airbus faces another challenge: helping investors find homes for five A380s due to be released by Singapore Airlines after their lease expires.

So far there is no second-hand market for the jets, which entered service in 2007, and several Istat delegates said it would not be easy to find takers due in part to the high costs of converting the interiors to suit the needs of a new airline.