One More In The Giants' Club: Thai Airways Gets Its First Airbus A380

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The club of airlines flying the biggest passenger airplane in the world has expanded. Thai Airways has taken delivery of its first Airbus A380, becoming the ninth airline to fly the giant. With a ceremony at the Airbus assembly plant in Toulouse, France, on Thursday, Thai Airways International (Bangkok: TH) received the first of six A380s on order, which it plans to introduce in service in October on the Bangkok-Hong Kong and Bangkok-Singapore routes.

Those are short hops for the intercontinental double-decker, designed to carry a full payload of passengers and cargo over a maximum distance of 15,400 km (9,500 miles) nonstop. As more aircraft are delivered and crews familiarize themselves with the plane, Thai will begin long-range service, first to Frankfurt at the end of the year, then Tokyo and Paris early in 2013.

The Airbus can seat up to 850 passengers in a single-class layout, but, so far, its operators have refrained from packing people in and opted for more comfortable arrangements. Thai will fly its new four-engine giants with a capacity of 507 seats of which 12 will be in first class and 60 in business, a relatively spacious layout for the A380. (Korean Air flies it in an even roomier configuration, with just 407 seats.)     

Airbus said in a press release that Thai’s A380s are outfitted with personal entertainment screens, individual power supplies, Internet connectivity, Wi-Fi and access for in-flight mobile telephones, along with SMS and MMS messaging.

With Thursday’s delivery, Airbus has handed over to its customers a total of 84 aircraft since the A380 entered service five years ago, out of 257 on order.  

More than one in three A380s ordered will go to Emirates, the Dubai-based airline that since its founding in 1985 has seen a meteoric growth and is now the world’s biggest by international passengers carried. Emirates already has 23 of the 90 Airbus giants it ordered.

The cargo version of the A380, instead, is faring very poorly -- the only orders, from FedEx and UPS, were canceled years ago, and nobody has shown interest in the freighter since. The two cargo airlines were also the only American clients of the A380. When they canceled their orders, the Airbus super-giant became essentially an Asian story: The vast majority of orders, 219, have come from Asia-based arilines plus Australian carrier Qantas. The others are going to European airlines. The Americas, along with Africa, are the only continents where nobody has bought the world’s biggest passenger plane -- or maybe where nobody could afford it: At $390 million a pop, according to the Airbus price list, the behemoth does not come cheap.  

Even at almost $400 million each, the giant is still a money-loser for Airbus, which makes all of its profit on the smaller A320 and A330 series twin-jets. The European multinational company still does not officially know at what point it will turn profitable. When the plane first flew, in 2005, Airbus stated that the break-even point would be at around 250 units sold; later, it revised that figure to more than 400, and now it does not quote a figure.

In the meantime, the giant churns on, at a production rate of about two per month. Next up, British Airways: Sometime in 2013, it will become the tenth airline to fly the 560-ton monster.

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