Emirates’ Airbus order cancellation raises questions

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus


THE cancellation of an order for 70 Airbus A350 aircraft amounting to US$16 billion (based on 2007 list prices) by Emirates Airlines has turned the focus on the Airbus company. In an obvious attempt to play down the drama, Airbus chief operating officer (customers) John Leahy said: “It is not the world’s greatest news.” That did not check Airbus shares from falling 3.7 per cent and engine maker Rolls-Royce by 1.7 per cent on the back of Emirates’ decision. Mr Leahy even brushed it aside as if it was something to be expected, adding that Emirates president Tim Clark “does change his mind from time to time.”

In truth, airlines do change their mind about aircraft orders. In 2012, Qantas cancelled orders for 35 Boeing Dreamliner jets worth US$8 billion following a net loss of US$256 million – its first annual loss since 1995 when it was privatised – and expected lower growth requirements. The Australian flag carrier is keeping its fleet options open. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said: “We will maintain complete flexibility over the fleet.” He explained: “In this business there is always potential for great headwinds and tailwinds… there is no intention that every aircraft is guaranteed to come or that it’s not going to come.”

Only very recently did budget carrier Tigerair – which is 40-per-cent owned by Singapore Airlines – also cancel orders for nine Airbus A320 aircraft in light of perceived overcapacity in the region of its operations.

But a decision by Emirates which is not in the same financial straits as Qantas and Tigerair must raise questions even as Mr Leahy insisted that he was “not particularly worried at all.” To suggest that it was a whim of Mr Clark was quite unwarranted. But Airbus did express its disappointment. Apparently, Emirates’ decision followed ongoing discussions between the two parties as the airline reviewed its fleet requirement. In fact, Emirates has ordered an additional 50 A380 aircraft.

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

So, naturally, we ask the big “Why?” and speculate on the ramifications of that decision.

Is Emirates dissatisfied with the aircraft model?

Allegedly Emirates is unhappy with particularly the performance of the A350-1000 model, which makes up 20 of the 70 aircraft orders, the others being the A350-900 model. Even as Airbus said Rolls-Royce was working on the upgrade, the writing was already on the wall when in November 2012, Mr Clark told Aviation Week that Emirates’ order for the aircraft was in limbo, and that the A350-900 “is starting to look a bit marginal to us because of its size.” That provided another perspective to the issue – one of suitability. Mr Clark explained: “Gauge is the way we grow, you cannot get any more aircraft into the Dubai hub.”

Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity?

The focus is so much on Airbus that it has become convenient to not ask any question that may suggest that Emirates’ decision is driven by more an internal than an external situation, or at least in part due to it. It is almost unthinkable in light of Emirates’ sterling performance when it posted a 43-per-cent increase in profit to Dh3.3 billion (US) for financial year 2013-14. According to Emirates chairman and chief executive officer Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, the airline’s profit margin was more than double that of the industry, the result of flying 44.5 million passengers – up 13 per cent – and close to a 80-per-cent load factor. It was a year of expansion as the airline increased its capacity for both passenger and cargo, and as it added new destinations across the globe.

By all accounts it does not look like Emirates is about to stop expanding, or even slowing down, despite the revised forecast by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) that showed astagnation in profitability for the industry in Africa and a dip for all the other regions with the exception of North America. Of course, the state of the industry does not necessarily reflect the fortune of Emirates, which in the past year has experienced healthy growth in all the regions that it operates. Still, the question must be asked: Has Emirates over-estimated its growth capacity, noting too the limitations of Dubai Airport? To be sure, the airline will continue to expand, having announced plans to add five new routes to Abuja, Brussels, Chicago, Kano and Oslo, but perhaps at a slower rate. It could be in this context that Shaikh Ahmad recognized the need for “efficient new aircraft” amongst other things to sustain profitability,

Will Emirates’ decision affect other airlines’ orders?

Courtesy Airbus

Courtesy Airbus

Emirates’ decision raises questions on the impact it may have on other airlines with similar orders, more notably the Gulf carriers namely Etihad Airways (with an order for 40 A350-900s + 22 A350-1000s) and Qatar Airways (43 + 37). Besides Etihad and Qatar, airlines that have placed orders include Air France-KLM (25 A350-900s), Aer Lingus (9 A350-900s + 9 A350-1000s), Aeroflot (14 + 22), Air China (10 + 10), AirAsia X (10 + 10), Asiana Airlines (12 +10), Cathay Pacific (20 + 26) and Japan Airlines (18 + 13). But Mr Leahy of Airbus was confident that other airlines would take up the slots vacated by Emirates. He maintained that there would “no hole in production” and therefore no impact financially since the first deliveries were only planned for 2019 and spanned out to 2034.

Is Emirates setting the stage for heightened competition between Airbus and Boeing?

This is not a new story about the rivalry between Airbus and Boeing, but more a reminder of it. It is all the more significant when Emirates is the world’s largest operator of the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 in a fleet of 217 aircraft. In 2013-14, it received 24 new aircraft including 16 A380s, six Boeing 777-300ERs and two Boeing 777Fs. If there is a customer that both manufacturers want to please most, it has to be Emirates. Airbus is unlikely to let Emirates’ concerns go unattended even though the latter had cancelled its order; that will become history. For Airbus, it is more than just about losing an order. More importantly, it is about the competition with Boeing. Clearly, he who pays the piper calls the tune.

It was by the size of Emirates’ order a big deal after all, and Emirates is one of the world’s leading airlines. Mr Tim Clark may well have the last laugh.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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