Abigail Townsend: While the super jumbo stalls, the world flies past

Beset by delays, the Airbus A380 already looks a plane out of time
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The Independent Online

The A380 super jumbo is surely a contender for one of the most ill-conceived airplanes ever. Confirmation of yet another delay to its launch - this time because of more wiring-installation problems - came last week.

Airbus, the company behind the A380, will get there in the end; the planes will, one day, land on our runways.

But that doesn't mean it will be worth the wait. Chatting to an airline insider recently, I asked why his carrier hadn't ordered an A380. There were a variety of reasons, not least the eminently sensible one of letting others iron out the inevitable teething problems that will only be discovered once these birds are operational. Infrastructure is also an issue, as airports struggle to make room for such massive planes.

But the insider also pointed out the sneaking suspicion that this is not what customers want. People don't want to be rammed into a cattleshed that departs once a day; they want to be able to choose which flight - red eye, morning, lunchtime or afternoon - suits. They want flexibility on what they pay: cheapies for skiing weekends and a couple of weeks in the sun; business class for work trips; and maybe something in between first and economy for long haul. People use different airlines not just for different destinations, but for the different services.

The airline industry has changed for ever. No longer is flying extraordinary and extravagant and a symbol of our incredible industrial age. It's run of the mill and so should be simple and flexible. Cheap, but not necessarily nasty.

The whole debate about BAA is tied up in this. Once it was only right that the Government controlled airports. Then it was fine that they be owned by one company only, despite the appearance of a monopoly. And now? The argument goes that this company should be broken up to provide a competitive, healthy market that puts consumers ahead of all else.

The A380 was conceived over a decade ago, well before all these changes. The present has overtaken Airbus's view of the future.

Just look at what has been developed since the A380 first took shape. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner is selling well because the fleet consists of cheaper, smaller planes with good fuel efficiency. The infrastructure is already in place to handle them and, while they cannot go as far as the A380, they can still do long distances. Put simply, they offer more flexibility for the traveller.

All this speaks of a different attitude to how aviation will develop over the coming years. Let's not forget that Boeing hasn't made a single 787 yet and is hardly squeaky clean when it comes to histories of delay. But infrastructure issues and production problems are at heart irrelevant; what matters is the philosophy. And on that front, Boeing has got it right.

Moving the furniture

Sticking with change, and there was no better sign of that on the high street last week than MFI's loss-making retail chain being sold off for £1. (Even that figure makes the deal look better for the vendor than it really is, as it doesn't take into account the multi-million-pound "dowry" that MFI had to pay to new owners Merchant Equity Partners.)

Not surprisingly, the company is now changing its name to Galiform - and hoping everyone forgets about MFI.

It was not always like this. When MFI was founded in the 1960s, it became a big player in home furnishings - a £1bn business. But it failed to adapt to changing times and, more specifically, consumer tastes. The company did try to resurrect its fortunes, but all rather late in the day. Plans also appeared ill-judged: an attempt to shift itself upmarket outpriced traditional customers but failed to attract high-end customers, who would only ever see it as a downmarket brand. It is a moral that all on the high street, and beyond, would be wise to take on board: lose touch with your customers and risk losing your business.

a.townsend@independent.co.uk

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