A Fleet Of Boeing 737s Vs One Airbus A380 – Which Is Best?

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.

Southwest Emirates
An Emirates A380 waits for a common Southwest 737. Photo: Bill Abbott via Flickr

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

Singapore a380, 737, planes, peels
A Boeing 737 is stalked by the much larger A380. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia

Passenger experience

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).

Boeing 737 BCF
The Boeing 737 would need to be entirely converted to cargo in order to be competitive. Photo: Boeing

Fuel burn

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.

Frequency

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.

WestJet, Halifax, Manchester
Passengers prefer frequency over capacity. Photo: Pixabay

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.

Bottom line

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.

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TonytTDK

Bearing in mind that A380 production is supposed to be ending & only 1 retired airframe us currently on it’s 2nd user, I would have thought they would be worth around about their parts/scrap value for a complete aircraft.
Buying 1 for 10 million would make the numbers & VFM look very different.

Tony perrin

No lease company ever bought 380. Landing gear if leased the could never be worked out who would pay the first lease or who.

Pingy

HiFly has one an they are planning to acquire another this year.

ExPatBrit

PR speak. They also said that in 2018 and 2019, don’t hold your breath.
I can see them picking up an A380 with RR engines for parts.
Gotta be cheap as chips tho’.

Crazybean

True comparison would look like:
a) figure out how many businnes class seat you can sell
b) translate that to the number of 737s (or 787s)
c) fill the rest with economy

Compare costs and revenue.

Ted

Actually, the fuel burn per seat-mile will remain the same using one 737, four 737s or fifty of them. It doesn’t matter if you fly 600 seats for a thousand miles at 80 mpg/seat in one plane doing 4 trips or 4 planes doing one trip or one plane doing one trip, you will still burn 80 mpg/seat!

Alex

737 Max Fleet of 100 v 1* A380. Hmmm easy airbus win. It can fly.

Phiroze K Cama

Alex you are absolutely right. In any case this is a very silly comparison, comparing an A380 with a B737.

IJBos

Final of fuel burn you stated the figures are gallons per passenger mile, but you then said that four 737s burn 4 times the fuel per passenger as an a380. According to the previous numbers that would only be true if 3/4 737s flew empty. So what is incorrect?

VHAQ

Did you come up with the idea to write this article because of that picture? lol

Richard Prior

As a frequent flyer during the 70s, 80s & 90s, all airlines had a greater consideration of passenger comfort. The modern seat configuration on all 737s are not merely uncomfortable, but in the worst case I vowed never to fly with that airline ever again. (Ryanair Cattle Transport fits this description) I have a personal dislike of ALL single aisle aircraft, whilst showing a preference for greater aisle seating on aircraft with multi-aisle configurations. Passenger preference for Airline service levels, Seat spacing & Reliability records carry far more weight than you appear to acknowledge. My flight records include many Personal… Read more »

DAVID BORLE

What about the crews ??? 8 pilots for the 4 737s vs 2 to serve the a380 Big big difference each month !

ExPatBrit

20-24 crew to operate a single A380, compared to 6-8 on the 737.

John Holler

Too many airports cannot handle the 380. Limits where you can fly. Big negative.

Gerry S

Easy answer: Four B737s. Or four A320s. Or four unnamed other. Availability of real estate matters.

ROBERT TOD

One woild think that 737s flying with greater frequency will have more maintenance costs compared to an A380 flying once a day. There are certain routes LHR-JFK, as as example, where certain time of day flights are more full than others. BA for years would operate 747s on busier times and 767s on those in between. Besides lighter weight composites in airframes, its the new generation of engines that are making planes more economical to operate. Personally, I still see a market for the A380 and puzzled why the manufacturers don’t consider putting more economical engines on them. Granted they’ll… Read more »

Scott R.

What about the number of cycles the aircraft is designed for. In short haul service the A380 would prematurely exceed its lifetime pressurization cycles and need to be retired early also negating savings over the aircraft lifetime.

MAK

just a thought – if an airline with 1 A380 encounters a major technical glitch then 600~800 pax are grounded – in case of 737 types fewer pax are grounded, also the possibility of a replacement aircraft being available, or empty seats on next flights may make quite a difference.

Carlos

There is something that has not been taken into account. On highly congested airports (NY for example) it is very unlikely you can get as many slots needed to fly the fleet of 737s. However, getting just one for the A380 seems maybe more probable? Vague comment my one, but I think it shows more or less what I mean.

ZZZZ14

Another thing should be considered is the maintenance cost. mainly engine.
How much does it takes to C and D check 4 engines A380 vs 8 engine B737 (4 aircrafts)?.
Also, mention the airframe and the Landing gear as well.

Mike-in-Fort-Collins

I’ve always looked upon Airbus’ venture into ultra heavy aircraft as a exercise in fantasy and a way to hold bragging rights over Boeing’s 747. Profitability was not really well thought out – was there really a need for a second huge aircraft; time has shown the answer is no. Smaller planes are more the norm and comparing the fuel burn on a 380 over say a 777-X9. It’s not even close. You can carry nearly 400 passengers in the 777 with 20% less fuel consumed. The 380s must fly nearly full on every flight or they become a loss… Read more »

yesid sanchez

The A380, is more secure and strong