Airbus's troubled A380 airliner has been thrown a lifeline by Gulf carrier Emirates, which has agreed to buy 36 of the double-decker jets.

The company has signed a memorandum of understanding for a US$16 billion ($21.8b) deal to acquire 20 of the "superjumbos" with an option for 16 more.

The purchase will extend the production line for the A380, which Airbus said last week could be shut down if no more orders were taken for the poorly selling aircraft, according to the Daily Telegraph.

Airbus said the agreement means manufacturing of the jet - which each cost US$446 million at list prices and can seat up to 853 passengers - will continue for at least a decade.

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Wings for A380s are built at the company's plant in Broughton, north Wales, before being shipped to the final assembly line at the Airbus base in Toulouse.

John Leahy, head of sales for Airbus, said: "This new order underscores Airbus' commitment to produce the A380 at least for another 10 years."

He added: "I'm personally convinced more orders will follow Emirates' example and that this great aircraft will be built well into the 2030s."

Airbus received a public snub from Emirates at the Dubai air show last year when the airline announced at the last minute it was ordering 40 jets worth US$15b from Boeing at an event which had widely been expected to trumpet a new A380 order.

Emirates is already the largest customer for the A380, having received more than 100 examples of the giant airliner, with another 40 on order before Thursday's announcement.

However, until the latest Emirates deal - which ended a two-year order drought for the jet - Airbus had secured only 317 A380 orders, of which it had fewer than 100 left to deliver.

Analysts say believe that as many as half of these may be cancelled by airlines, meaning the company is running out of work for the A380 production line.

Airbus has already cut the production rate from a peak of 27 aircraft a year to just six in 2019 to keep the line running in hope of landing fresh orders.

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Emirates said some of the new order to replace older A380s in its fleet, with an uncertain future for those jets coming out of the fleet.

In November the first A380 to go into service was handed back by operator Singapore Airlines after just a decade of service.

Dr Peters Group, the aircraft leasing company which owns it, put it into storage without its engines at Tarbes Lourdes Pyrénées airport, close to the Airbus factory in Toulouse where it was originally built.

Its retirement underlines the lack of interest from airlines for the four-engine jets as they face competition from smaller twin-engine aircraft which are easier to fill and cheaper to maintain.

Emirates has not said who will provide engines for the new A380s, but Rolls-Royce is seen as a frontrunner having powered the previous 50 superjumbos the airline purchased.

In what was billed as one of the largest single export orders for the UK, Rolls won the US$9.2b contract from incumbent supplier Engine Alliance, a joint venture between US groups General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.