Last year I wrote a story for Spectrum on in-flight entertainment systems and how airlines use them not only to attract new business but also to relieve the stress of passengers cooped up in a confined space for hours on end. However, an article in today's Bloomberg News indicates that providing passenger creature comforts may have gone a step too far, at least in regard to the Airbus A380.
As noted here and here, Airbus has had trouble producing the A380, which was delivered 2 years behind schedule and double its originally estimated $6 billion cost. French and German engineers used different software tools which led to early production planes having to be rewired.
According to the Bloomberg story, another production problem has been that Airbus has allowed the airlines to extensively customize the A380. For instance, airlines in addition to installing state-of-art in-flight entertainment systems, have added showers, enclosed suites and bar lounges which have proved popular with both passengers and the airlines but have caused problems for engineers in trying to ramp up production.
Bloomberg quoted Rupinder Vig, an analyst at Morgan Stanley in London, as saying, "They [Airbus] customized the plane to death, and that’s preventing them from reaching the production levels they'd talked about."
Airbus Chief Executive Officer Thomas Enders admitted to Bloomberg that customization has proved to be "a big challenge" - i.e., a big headache, especially to the Airbus production engineers who are trying desperately to increase production line efficiency. The Bloomberg article says the engineers are "irked" by all the changes.
Boeing, the article goes on to say, limits the amount of airline customization in its 787 Dreamliner by having a pre-set number of different customization packages available for airlines to choose from. Then again, Boeing's 787 doesn't have much cabin space to play with as an Airbus 380. Airbus markets this extra space as "more room to breath" in.
Probably the only saving grace is that the world-wide recession has slowed the demand for the A380, with 13 of the 16 airlines who ordered the aircraft pushing back their desired delivery dates. Lufthansa announced just yesterday that it was deferring delivery of 15 of its order of A380's, for example.
However, as the article notes, the additional costs incurred by the mass customization haven't helped Airbus' bottom line, and there are doubts about whether the plane will ever turn a profit.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.