What is better, a fleet of Boeing 737 aircraft or a single Airbus A380? What might be a simple question actually has a much deeper answer.
Why does this question exist?
If you are like me, when you first heard this question you might have thought “the A380 has a bigger capacity and a better range than the Boeing 737, so of course that is the superior aircraft”.
But what if the A380 was deployed on a route that was short enough to compete with a fleet of Boeing 737s? Bonkers you say? Let us examine it a bit further.
Imagine a scenario in which there are two airlines. One has a single A380 and another has a fleet of Boeing 737s. Which would be the more profitable and popular airline? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each choice?
To answer this question, we first need to define how big a fleet of Boeing 737s one airline would need to have to match an A380.
Thus, we would need a fleet of four Boeing 737s (640 passengers) to match a single A380. We will assume the airline buys the Boeing 737-800, as this is the most commonly used aircraft in the world. We will also assume a route that allows the two aircraft to compete, such as Sydney to Melbourne or Chicago to New York.
In terms of cost, the Airbus A380 is around $440 million USD at list prices and the Boeing 737 at around $106 million at list prices. This makes both fleets around the same price to acquire.
There is no doubt that an A380 can offer a much better cabin experience for passengers, especially those in business class. In fact, the A380 can hold far more business passengers in one plane than four Boeing 737s can, and each passenger is treated to lie-flat beds, a bar at the end of the plane and their own little privacy. Impossible on a Boeing 737 without significantly reducing passenger capacity.
Although it can be argued that on such a short flight you might not be able to enjoy the experience. But if the route was not a short-haul one but rather the full range of a 737 (around 6-7 hours in flight), we can guess which aircraft you would rather be in.
The Airbus A380 also carries more cargo onboard than four Boeing 737s combined (175.2 m3 (6,190 ft³) vs 44.1 m³ (1,555 ft³).
One advantage that the A380 may appear to have is that of passenger burn per seat. As the aircraft can fit more people onboard than a Boeing 737, perhaps the aircraft is far more efficient?
Despite carrying more passengers on board, the Airbus A380 can’t seem to escape its heavy empty weight and four-engine configuration. The fuel efficiency between the two is significantly different:
- Airbus A380 Fuel efficiency per seat – 3.16 L/100 km (74 mpg‑US)
- Boeing 737 Fuel efficiency per seat – 2.77 L/100 km (85 mpg‑US)
The above 737 fuel burns are based on a range of 500-1000 nautical miles. I would expect the A380 to lower as the aircraft struggles to take off and land in just over an hour or two.
The Boeing 737 fleet has an advantage up its sleeve. As there are four different Boeing 737 aircraft the airline can offer at least four different frequencies per day. The A380 cannot and will only operate once or maybe twice a day.
It could be a deal-breaker for some passengers who want to leave early or arrive late and will look for a time that is more convenient for them.
This is actually one of the main reasons why the Airbus A380 never really saw any popularity outside long-haul international routes. Airlines found that passengers actually prefer frequency over capacity and wanted a range of different times to fly.
We cannot ignore the turn around time. A Boeing 737 can be turned around much faster than an A380 and would allow for more frequencies in a day, beating off any fuel savings you may have made with the A380.
What about an all-economy A380?
Before we conclude this analysis, we might want to just touch on an all-economy configured A380. After all, the Boeing 737 is envisioned as a short-haul aircraft, why not envision the A380 as the same?
An all-economy A380 would have a capacity of around 850 seats. If we were to calculate the fuel efficiency, the A380 would achieve around 95 miles per gallon. This is better than the Boeing 737.
Plus, the A380 in question is also carrying 300 more passengers and thus you will need more Boeing 737s to compete. This now means that you have to invest more in the Boeing 737 fleet in order to match the single A380 and still make less money per flight.
But each of these Boeing 737s can fly more routes in a single day than an A380, and might actually earn more per seat, negating any fuel savings.
A harsh reality is that it is far easier to fill up a Boeing 737 and make it profitable than an entire A380, let alone an all-economy 850 seater A380. Likely the A380 airline would need to drop their prices so much to fill their plane that they would barely be making a profit.
Overall on a short-haul route, the short-haul aircraft fleet comes ahead in popularity. An airline would stand to make more money and be able to operate more services a day with a normal Boeing 737. But if you get an all-economy A380 filled up then you dominate the competition.
Now if only there were a bunch of A380s being retired and could be picked up for a song.
What do you think? Can you think of anything we have missed? Let us know in the comments.