The arrival of the double-decker Airbus A380 on U.S. runways last month was a once-in-a-lifetime sighting for "plane spotters" and a tailor-made photo-op for the press. Yet the plane's potential customers -- airline CEOs and, ultimately, paying passengers -- were unimpressed and confused, respectively.
Test flights' soft landings
The test flights to New York, Chicago and Washington were sponsored by Lufthansa, which will not receive its first of the $300 million "superjumbo" jets for another two years and may not begin service to the U.S. with the plane until some months after that. Australia's Qantas Airways simultaneously flew a second plane to Los Angeles. Airbus executives used the occasion as a sales call on American carriers such as United Airlines and American Airlines, which dutifully kicked the tires but declared via spokespeople that no orders would be forthcoming. And despite the cheering crowds, airline executives and industry observers remain dubious about the value of heralding the A380 as a blockbuster event for the industry when evidence suggests passengers either don't care or may be slightly scared to fly in the plane.
The flights were only the latest in a long series of marketing miscues by Airbus and its corporate parent, EADS, the pan-European aerospace consortium. The company already has had to weather a hurricane of bad press and criticism surrounding production that has pushed the plane's official debut back two years. That touched off a radical restructuring of its multinational work force that has included 10,000 layoffs and two separate CEO resignations in the past year. The delays have also disrupted the expansion plans of launch customers such as Emirates Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Singapore Airlines. (The last was forced to watch its aggressive "First to Fly in 2006" campaign become obsolete after Airbus informed the airline that its first plane won't be delivered until October of this year.)
Sorry, no casinos
Even when the A380 project was cruising, Airbus' efforts to market the plane habitually backfired. When the company released the first sketches of potential interiors in early 2005, some of the more grandiose ideas included airborne casinos, mini-malls, gyms and beauty salons. While the images made a splash in the press, one airline executive said the airlines were upset that Airbus had unrealistically inflated passengers' expectations. When Singapore Airlines finally unveiled the $375 million overhaul of its in-flight cabins, for example, the designs included larger, more streamlined seats but no casinos.
Speaking onboard the A380 last month as it flew from New York to Frankfurt, Lufthansa's Reinhold Luber, the airline's VP-product management and innovation, said, "When this aircraft was promoted for the first time, it looked like a cruise ship." After focus groups and interviews with more than 6,000 frequent fliers, Lufthansa discovered that "the customer wants as much personal space as possible, not a shopping mall," he said. And what first-class passengers wanted to do more than anything else during flight, he learned, was sleep.
A spokeswoman for Airbus North America pointed out that the mock-ups presented at the inception of the program simply illustrated the possibilities. "Showers, bars, meeting areas, sleeping quarters, duty free shops -- we have shown all those, as all those are very possible, and airlines are interested in them. No airline is going to promote an interior they don't plan to have."
The A380 that visited the U.S. month had the opposite problem, however -- it was too boring. The interiors were essentially generic set-ups installed by Airbus that will have little in common with the finished product. Lufthansa, for example, doesn't intend to announce what its planes will look like for another two years.
Flying 'cattle class'
And, as it turns out, size does matter. While the economic rationale for flying the A380 revolves around its ability to move as many passengers as possible between congested hub airports, Americans intrinsically recoil at flying in "cattle class" aboard the double-decker. Most airlines will configure the plane to seat around 500 passengers, but it is capable of carrying 853 in an all-coach configuration. Airbus sustained another black eye when The New York Times printed a front-page story on the discarded possibility of a "standing-room-only" class on short flights within Asia.
Widespread coverage of the plane's manufacturing woes -- which have to do with the plane's wiring and electronic systems -- has even given some consumers the misperception that the plane itself is unsafe, even though it has passed every test with flying colors. "That's really an issue that Airbus has got to get their heads around," said James Boyd, Singapore Airlines' North American spokesman. "Issues of safety are very different from manufacturing and assembly."
Said the Airbus spokeswoman, "Any initial misperceptions of compromised safety ... were quickly eradicated by fact. People who follow our industry understand that the delays have absolutely nothing to do with the safety or quality of the aircraft."
While Airbus has taken pains to draw this distinction in the business pages, consumers are largely still in the dark.
"One thing Airbus has failed to do is much in the way of consumer marketing," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst at Forrester Research. "Boeing is calling the 787 [its next-generation plane] the 'Dreamliner'; they've created a website for it; and they've really gotten consumers engaged in the benefits of the plane." By contrast, Airbus has been more focused on selling the plane to airlines than to passengers down the road.
The Airbus spokeswoman maintained that "large commercial aircraft are not typically consumer products." The company, she said, "believes it has marketed the aircraft to the appropriate audiences with the appropriate messages" and that airlines will ultimately decided how they brag about their new ride. Whatever the airlines decide, she said, passengers won't "be disappointed in the A380 -- it is a remarkable aircraft inside and out."
But after more than a decade of development and years of anticipation and delays, Airbus faces a growing risk that the A380 may end up being just another big plane.