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LONDON (Reuters) - Airbus is poised to review its A380 superjumbo after a slump in orders and has not ruled out shaving output of the world's largest jetliner while waiting for the economy to come to its rescue.
Despite aggressive marketing, sales of the 525-seat double-decker are running at idle as in tough times many airlines are focusing on narrower, lighter, two-engine models, including Airbus's own A350.
U.S. rival Boeing (BA.N) said last week that it was cutting production of the latest version of its 747 jumbo, while nearing a decision to launch a 406-seat version of its 777 twinjet.
Airbus has not booked a firm A380 order this year but has taken three cancellations. It has sold a total of 259.
Its sales chief is confident Airbus will sign a number of deals in the next two months to avoid ending the year with more cancellations than orders - an embarrassment for an aircraft hailed as a European wonder when it was unveiled in 2005.
But in its factories, Airbus is approaching a crunch point despite the jet's popularity with passengers after six years.
The immediate worry is that gaps in the production line for 2015 will force airbus to build jets it hasn't been able to sell - known as "white tails" - tying up cash in planes worth $400 million each at list prices, most of which is paid on delivery.
Time to avert the problem is running out because parts like metal forgings have to be ordered up to two years ahead.
Amid such concerns, Airbus is likely to take the opportunity to "review the situation and strategy" for the A380 at the end of the year, said an industry source who asked not to be named.
Options include trimming production below the targeted 30 a year, taking a less pro-active stance on the jet and mainly producing what has been sold, and reviving plans to upgrade it beyond the end of the decade.
Airbus declined to comment on any review, but ruled out straining its resources by building an unwanted jet.
"Regarding 2015, we have a few slots at the end of the year and we still work to try to fill them," said Tom Williams, executive vice president for programs at the planemaker.
"Clearly we would want to keep A380 production around 30 aircraft per year as we have stated many times; however, we will never build ‘white tails'. We are pragmatic and we will adapt production rates and our cost structure in line with demand: small variations are not a crisis."
Analysts say that depending on its magnitude, a cut would be scrutinized for any impact on Airbus's target to break even on the A380 in 2015, though most investors are focused on the A350.
Nick Cunningham of Agency Partners said Airbus may be forced to lower A380 costs more quickly than planned if it still wanted the jetliner to break even in 2015 while also cutting output.
One way of easing pressure would be to bring forward planes scheduled for later delivery, though superjumbo production is significantly less flexible than on smaller jets. Williams said Airbus would look at making "small advancements" if needed.
Airbus boasted the A380 would reshape aviation when it was launched in 2001, offering new comforts and lower operating costs. It sees a total market for 1,711 very large jets over the next 20 years, much higher than Boeing's forecast of 760.
But the A380's birth was beset by technical and management rows, and sales fell abruptly when the discovery of wing cracks in 2011 hit momentum.
Germany's Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) recently reduced its A380 order by three as it bought smaller planes. But so far, some of the superjumbo's largest customers are not worried.
"For me, there will always be a market for a 500-plus seater," said Tim Clark, president of Dubai's Emirates.
The airline has ordered a total of 90 A380s and does not see the arrival of slightly smaller twinjets - such as the Boeing 777X that it also plans to add to its fleet - as a threat.
"As the economy returns to a degree of normality, as it will, history tells us the rebound will be a lot faster and more aggressive than in previous decades, and this time next year we could be having a different discussion," Clark said.
In June, Airbus announced a marketing partnership with Doric Lease Corp, which provisionally ordered 20 A380s and is expected to finalize as early as next month. The same group is already a major A380 investor through financing deals with Emirates.
"The slow period of sales coincided with the great recession. I am aware of airlines that were going to take the aircraft but didn't because of the global economic slowdown," said Doric Lease Corp Chief Executive Mark Lapidus.
"I would say this is now changing because growth is coming back. We are now in a growth mode, not in a survival mode," he said, adding the group was talking to several airlines and sees "significantly more orders for the plane in the next 12 months".
Slow sales are not the only headache, however. Analysts say the quality of the undelivered backlog has also deteriorated.
Airbus's 148 remaining undelivered orders for A380 include up to around 30 aircraft that analysts say may not get delivered, notably five for grounded Indian airline Kingfisher.
Others include 10 for Hong Kong Airlines, which faces Chinese divisions over the jet, and six for Virgin Atlantic, which has negotiated cancellation rights.
The backlog is also increasingly dominated by one customer, Emirates, which makes up a third - and well above 40 percent if you exclude those orders considered least likely to be fulfilled by other airlines, according to a Reuters analysis.
That comes as a mixed blessing for airline CEO Tim Clark, who says he is surprised more airlines had not ordered the jet.
"The last thing we want is to see the A380 marginalized," he told Reuters. It may, however, give the Dubai carrier a significant say in how the A380 will evolve, particularly whether the world's biggest passenger jet will get even bigger.
"We have always been an advocate of stretching the airplane," Clark told Reuters. "We have 37 in operation today, and on most routes a bigger plane would work quite nicely."
Airbus shelved its original plans for a second A380 version with 100 more seats when it became clear that the aircraft was not selling as quickly as it would have liked.
But now, engine makers are bringing out new products to power Boeing's revamped 777 and the competing Airbus A350-1000, meaning some of the development needed to re-engine and potentially expand the A380 has potentially already been done.
Some 60 years after the jet age began, reviving such a move could bring the world closer to an eye-popping 1,000-seat megajumbo if others opted to fill it with all-economy seats. The current model is certified to hold 853 people in such a layout.
"We are not in any rush to make any decisions to change the design of the A380, and there is no such decision," said Airbus's Williams.
Even so, industry sources said Airbus and some suppliers had begun to think about what capital, engineering resources and facilities may be needed. Airbus has also started sounding out engine makers on what they could provide next decade.
"I think the A380 will get stretched; exactly when depends in part on how successful we are," said Lapidus, referring to Doric's joint marketing drive with Airbus.
"If we are very successful, it will happen sooner rather than later ... Imagine in a number of years that Airbus is approaching 500 orders for the A380: at that point the market will say very loudly to Airbus, you have to make that 650-700 seater aircraft."
Editing by Will Waterman