Building a much bigger plane was always a gamble for Airbus, but fresh delays are raising the stakes and could leave the planemaker a far smaller player in the global aerospace industry.
Analysts say long-term market share is at risk as Europe's biggest plane maker struggles to fix wiring problems on its A380 superjumbo, while U.S. archrival Boeing Co. stretches its lead in orders.
The latest word from the France-based company is of fresh delays, suggesting the price tag is about to rise again on its 12 billion euro ($15.2 billion) bet on the mammoth A380.
Nervous investors selling shares in parent EADS this week are desperate to know by how much.
To regain investor and customer confidence, Airbus needs to clearly articulate a credible recovery plan, Morgan Stanley analyst Scott Babka said in a research report.
EADS is under pressure to reveal that plan after a September 29 board meeting, or at the very latest in time for an investors' conference set to open in Hamburg on October 19.
It is a mess ... You have to get all the bad news out of the way by then, said one London-based analyst.
With a third delay in deliveries now confirmed, analysts say the risk is that the A380 will push Airbus' entire product strategy off course, stripping it of market share it has taken decades to build up.
The real risk from here is that A380 delays start to affect Airbus' competitiveness across the rest of its portfolio, said Morgan Stanley's Babka.
In a duopoly as fiercely competitive as that between Boeing and Airbus, it is notable when the other company does not challenge for market share. Boeing looked at the mega-large sector and deemed it not worth the investment.
Instead, it poured money and ideas into a new, long-range, mid-sized plane called the 787 which is due in 2008 and caught Airbus, distracted by its A380 efforts, off guard.
The Airbus response, the A350, was late, unfocused, repeatedly changed, then drastically revamped. Best case scenarios now see the A350 hitting the market four years later than the 787, a gap sure to cede market share to Boeing.
The U.S. group was king for decades but Airbus stole the spotlight by taking more orders than the U.S. planemaker for the first time in 1999. In 2003, it accomplished the industry's other key feat, delivering more planes than Boeing.
Past success means Airbus will safely take the delivery title again this year, but the orders intake - the barometer of future earnings - shows Boeing storming ahead.
The U.S. planemaker has booked 632 orders this year versus 222 for Airbus. It is outselling its European rival in small, medium and large planes.
Airbus has not booked a single order for the A380 this year.
Its A350 has 100 orders on the books for a version the planemaker no longer intends to build, posing an awkward and likely loss-making negotiating challenge.
Its latest version, the A350 XWB revealed in July, has not won a single firm order - while Boeing is at 377 orders for the 787 as airlines scramble for delivery slots.
The airliner industry is cyclical, with peaks and troughs roughly once a decade and Boeing, too, has had its tough times. It halted production lines in 1997 as problems with the 737 Next Generation model led to one-off charges and a series of fitful announcements of progress and setbacks.
Planemaking is also a long-term business, where a model can last decades and delays in new planes are more the rule than the exception.
But analysts say the troubles at Airbus pose the risk that the planemaker will miss out on the biggest game of all - the race to beat Boeing to the punch with a new smaller plane needed by airlines by about 2015.
While huge planes with flat beds and more movies than a film festival are great and mid-sized models are even bigger sellers, neither comes close to the kind of success both makers have had with their smallest, narrow-body models - the Airbus A320 series and the Boeing 737.
Big airlines buy them, budget airlines live off them and large, powerful leasing firms buy them by the dozen.
The 737 is the best selling airliner in history with more than 6,000 sold to date. Airbus has sold more variants of the A320 than every other Airbus model, past and present, combined.
They (Airbus) need to act now to avoid marginalization. Once marginalized, jetliner makers find it hard to recover, said Richard Aboulafia at Virginia-based consultancy Teal Group.
If they don't rush resources to the middle market, they'll have a hard time catching up and will likely fall further behind in the narrow-body product development race.