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Is this the beginning of the end for the world's biggest passenger plane?

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 4 days ago Annabel Fenwick Elliott

© Provided by The Telegraph The once-glittering future of the Airbus A380 superjumbo is looking shaky after a third significant engine failure forced an Air France flight to make an emergency landing last weekend.

A similar incident occurred in 2010 on a Qantas A380 flight from Singapore to Sydney, and a less serious engine malfunction caused another Qantas A380 Los Angeles-Melbourne flight to turn back in May of this year.

To make matters worse, Airbus suffered a massive blow in December with the announcement that it was forced to postpone deliveries of 12 A380s to its biggest customer, Emirates, over the next two years due to an issue with its Rolls Royce engines.

Just days later, the company announced than an order of 100 planes to Iran Air did not include a single A380, with the airline opting instead for smaller models.

When the superjumbo was first unveiled in 2005, it was hailed as the beginning of a new era in long-haul air travel: not only the largest, but the greenest and quietest aircraft in the world.

But orders, having fluctuated over time, have since been on a sharp decline, and bigger, it would appear, is not always better when it comes to ferrying an ever-increasing number of passengers through the skies.

So could this latest Airbus A380 mishap be the final nail in the coffin?

What happened to the Air France flight?

Last Saturday during an Air France flight from Paris to Los Angeles, passengers reported hearing a loud bang followed by vibrations that shook the cabin for 20 minutes.

One passenger, Daniel McNeely, said those in window seats claimed the entire engine exploded “in a giant fireball.”

The crumpled engine of the Air France A380 superjumbo

By the time the A380 landed at a Canadian military airfield in Goose Bay, Newfoundland, the cowling covering one of the plane’s four engines had been completely torn off.

American manufacturer Engine Alliance, which supplied the engine on this particular Air France jet, said it was working with investigative authorities to assess the cause of the failure. French investigation authority BEA today confirmed that the engine’s main fan and inlet had become detached.

None of the 520 people aboard the double-decker airliner were injured.

Previous incidents

Air France’s forced landing revived memories of engine damage to a Qantas A380 - this time running a Rolls-Royce engine - shortly after takeoff from Singapore in 2010.

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In similar circumstances, the Sydney-bound flight - carrying 459 people - was abandoned 15 minutes into its journey after passengers heard a loud bang and saw smoke and sparks coming out of one engine.

Once on the tarmac, it appeared that casing from the aircraft's number two engine was missing and parts of the aircraft's underside were blackened. An investigation blamed a leak from an engine pipe.

Two Qantas A380s have also suffered engine problems in the past

There was also an incident in May of this year when a Qantas A380 from Los Angeles to Melbourne was forced to turn back two hours into the flight. Qantas gave the reason as being due to “abnormal engine indications”. Again, it landed safely and the aircraft was back in service some days later.

Nervous fliers, however, can drop their shoulders. The A380 hasn’t suffered a single fatal accident since it entered service 12 years ago, and all incidents involving engine malfunctions have resulted in perfectly safe landings.

Declining sales

There was much fanfare when the glimmering new A380 - the largest commercial liner ever built - first thundered into the skies on April 27, 2005.

With more flight routes and more globe-trotters than ever before, the superjumbo, boasting a record-breaking capacity for 853 (seating configurations mean it has never actually flown with that many on board), seemed like a game-changer.  

But as history goes to show, the aviation industry has plenty of failures under its belt - with Concorde being among the most famous flops.

In July of this year, after a series of ups and downs, Airbus announced it was drastically reducing the number of A380s it would be producing in future.

Reporting half-year figures, the pan-European company said that “considering the current order booking situation”, deliveries of the A380 will be reduced to just eight in 2019.

At last year’s Farnborough Airshow the company said it would slow production to just 12 a year by 2018, down from a rate of 27 the year before.

Industry commentators have long speculated that the A380 programme is on the way out, many saying that the mammoth costs of operating such large aircraft were underestimated.

Aviation analyst Saj Ahmad from Strategic Aero Research said in July : “Cutting the A380 underlines the marketing disaster that belies the programme and that Airbus is realising that even life support has to be turned off - and it’s evident that day looms closer.”

Calling the superjumbo a vanity project that “needs to be killed off”, he added: “Even if a mooted order from Emirates emerges, it will not support a rate increase. It will be nothing more than Airbus having to make more A380s at a loss and still face the barrel of execution of the airplane.”

The A380s direct competitor, Boeing’s 747-8, appears to be following a similar path - last year it cut production of the model by half.

Soaring into the future

It’s not all doom and gloom for the A380, at least not yet. Plenty of Airbus and Boeing’s superjumbos are still cruising the air.

But smaller, more fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft are now proving more popular than ever.

Independent Air Transport consultant John Strickland told the Telegraph: “The A380 is a well regarded aircraft by airlines which operate it and by customers flying on it. Generally however, twin-engine aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777 reduce the financial risks involved with filling capacity and operating costs."

The Boeing 737, for example - a twin-jet narrow-body model with a short to medium range and several variations - first made its debut in 1967, and has proved itself a reliable workhorse and the best-selling commercial aircraft in history, with more than 9,600 delivered to date.

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With similar configurations, the popularity of Airbus’ A320s is so great that the company claims one takes off or lands somewhere in the world every two seconds.

Airbus' latest offering, the A320neo, has become the fastest-selling commercial aircraft in history

The airliner was launched in 1984 and the first one came into service four years later with Air France. Since then, it has received orders exceeding 13,000.

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Its latest version, the A320neo, has so far been ordered by 70 airlines, winning it the accolade of being the fastest-selling commercial aircraft in history.

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