The Airbus A380 Was Before Its Time

The A380 was a masterpiece of engineering, beloved of passengers everywhere. But, for carriers, it just didn’t work. Was the A380 just too big, too thirsty and should it never have been built? Or was it just ahead of its time?

Was the A380 ahead of its time? Photo: Airbus

We all know the sad story of the demise of the A380. With production scrapped and carriers making plans for the aircraft’s retirement, it seems its days in our skies are numbered. However, was the A380 really such a bad aircraft, or was it just before its time?

What the A380 was designed to do

With a passenger capacity of around 550 in a three or four class layout, the A380 was ideally suited to carry the most amount of passengers over a long distance. At the time when it was designed, it ticked all the boxes for carriers working on a hub and spoke model for their networks.

At airports where slots are super congested, carriers could snag the lion’s share of passengers on every slot they held. As such, the aircraft remains a popular model with hub based airline Emirates. However, even they are looking to other aircraft for their future needs.

Transfer Capital One points for Emirates flights.
Even Emirates are looking away from the A380. Photo: Emirates

When it’s full, the A380 is relatively economical to fly, and has enabled Emirates to become the globally recognizable airline that it is today. However, aside of the Gulf carrier, nobody has been able to make it work. Not Qantas, who with such a far away home turf were predicted to be a massive market for the A380. Not Singapore, not British Airways, not Lufthansa… none of them.

The reason for this was that, by the time the A380 was produced, the world had already begun to shift from hub and spoke to a point to point strategy. Using middle sized widebody aircraft to offer nonstop services between two cities was the way forward, and the A380 just didn’t fit. Frequency trumped capacity, and continues to do so, making giant planes like the A380 and the 747 no longer necessary.

But, could that all change in the future?

Passenger demand is growing

The number of people using air travel is growing year on year. According to the BBC, this is because,

“…the world as a whole is becoming more prosperous and air travel is becoming more affordable to the rising middle classes.”

In fact, in the latest Airbus Global Market Forecast, they predicted that the middle class will almost double over the next 20 years, and by 2037 will represent 57% of the population. That gives a pool of potential flyers of a staggering five billion people.

Airports around the world are struggling to keep up with the rising demand for air travel. Although many new airports are being built and existing ones expanded, in some of the world’s biggest growth regions the capacity still lags behind the availability of slots.

China Southern A380
Growth regions with congested airports could make more sense for the A380. Photo: Wikimedia.

India, China and other nations in the Far East are set to see explosive growth over the next decade. As such, perhaps there is a market for an aircraft that can seat a ton of passengers and take them anywhere in the world? In India, for example, key hubs at Mumbai and Delhi are both already completely slot deprived; as more people demand to travel to and from these cities, could the A380 see a revival?

However, as previously noted, unless it is absolutely full, the A380 will struggle to keep up with the efficiencies of more modern jets. Both the A350 and the forthcoming 777X will go some way towards rivalling the A380’s capacity, and at a far lower operating cost too.

The future of the A380

Although no new A380s will be built, many will continue providing services well into the next decade. What becomes of them after they reach retirement age remains to be seen, although Airbus have stated they will continue to support the second hand market with parts and maintenance as required.

Hi Fly A380 in flight
Hi Fly are keen for more A380s for their wet lease services. Photo: Hi Fly

Wet lease operator, Hi Fly, are confident in the abilities of the A380, planning for a second aircraft to join their fleet possibly as early as next year. Perhaps they are on to something with this.

As airports become more and more congested, perhaps an aircraft like the A380 will begin to make sense. Being able to shuttle hundreds of people a great distance could become a priority, particularly for carriers in the Far East. The future of the A380 remains to be seen, but perhaps this once hated giant jumbo will find its place in the future aviation marketplace.

22 comments
    1. NO. Well in the sense that the operating costs are comparable to a design a decade older, then yes it was late to the market.

      The A380 carries significantly more weight per seat than other long haul wide bodys even though it should have had the economies of scale on it’s side. The design was overweight. Combine that with the propulsion, aerodynamics and materials that are a generation or two in design behind the 787 and you have a plane that costs more to run per seat than the 787. That’s the simple problem.

      If it had the operating costs per seat of the 787 PLUS the economies of scale, it’d be a different story. When the 747 was introduced, it brought forward a big improvement in operating costs per seat for long haul. The 787 did the same. The A380 did no such thing. It barely even matches the decade older 777.

      The physical size or the engine count is not the problem with the A380. Airlines would’ve loved to have a plane of any size that brought an easy 20% total cut in per seat operating costs. The A380 didn’t bring that. But the 787 did. I’ve even seen comments from Airlines saying that even with the extra crewing and airport costs, it’s cheaper to operate two 787 flights than a single A380.

    1. I think that’s also a case that could be made. I was chatting to somebody just earlier about the fall of two-engined aircraft.

    2. Absolutely, it took too long to develop and missed a golden window of opportunity; however there is also the notion that things will come round again and perhaps there will be a market for the A380… if they did a neo it would be incredibly competitive!

  1. I can see both sides of the argument here:
    – The A380 was late: if it had been (a lot) earlier, it could have been a worthy competitor for the 747.
    – The A380 was before its time: because there aren’t yet enough airports in the world that are slot-saturated, although the numbers are increasing in that regard.

    If you can fill it, the A380 already competes well with existing 777s in terms of costs per seat mile. If it were to be NEO’d with new engines, it would also compete well with new-age aircraft such as the B787 and A350. When you think about it, it’s actually an aircraft that lends itself more to leasing than to direct purchase, because of the large initial capital outlay. It’s a pity that it was never actually purchased by a lessor…with the recent exception of (wet) lessor Hi Fly, of course.

    Regardless of what you think of twinjets, the fact remains that they’re all subject to ETOPS restrictions, and thus can’t just do what they want in the south Pacific and Antarctic regions; an A380 doesn’t have this problem. Also, because the engines on a twinjet are larger than those on a quadjet, a twinjet engine presents a larger potential area for a birdstrike. So quadjets also have some advantages 🙂

    1. But the A380 should’ve been head and shoulders above the 777 for per seat operating costs. Being on par with a smaller, decade older design is not good enough.

      The comment about bird strikes doesn’t make sense. Sure the engines are bigger on a twin but there are half as many of them and reduced potential bird strike area are not a priority for airlines anyway.

      Also, the 787 has been flying over the south Pacific for years. Only Qantas runs quads. I believe the only routes still subject to ETOPS are the Australia to South Africa and the Antarctic tours – both done in Qantas 747 or SAA A340.

  2. While a very interesting aircraft, I agree it should have been made in the 80 s. Would have been a great seller. It just has to happen, smaller aircraft point to point, or intl. flights at all hubs. Too much demand at the biggest hubs and no splits. Over four decades now in the industry , and passengers do not want to change planes if they do not have to. Simple as that. Always what sells will be the direction. 747 , wow, the best ever. Took all these years before it became obsolete. Flew millions of miles on these airplanes. Only the 737 can boast such a reputation. I miss the airplane , however the new 787 and 777 are wonderful. Great replacements and better.

    1. Taken “that (the worlds’) middle class will almost double over the next 20 years, and by 2037 will represent 57% of the population … that gives a pool of potential flyers of a staggering five billion people” needs some focus. One, big geographic distributional shifts in markets are happening, with China and India accounting for an ever-greater market share, while the European and North American middle class basically stagnates, plus an overwhelming majority of new entrants into the middle class—by one calculations 88 percent of the next billion—will live in Asia. As to the focus on middle-class consumption, this obscures the spending by rich households in advanced countries. Already in the U.S., spending by the rich far exceeds spending by the middle class ($7.2 trillion compared to $4.7 trillion), reflecting the particularly skewed distribution of income toward the top 1 percent of households within the U.S. Europe, too, has signif-icant consumption by rich households ($1.7 trillion). However, in Japan, with its far more even distribution, rich household spending is only one-fifth the value of middle-class spending. How much the U.S. dominates the global rich bears emphasizing. In 2016, rich households in the U.S. made up 61 percent of the global number, and they spend almost two-thirds of total consumption by rich households. This dominance is likely to persist. Even with a growing number of rich households in other countries, the U.S. should still account for over 50 per-cent of rich household spending by 2030. ( above brief thoughts taken from https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/global_20170228_global-middle-class.pdf )

      1. Absolutely the rich spend more, but the point is that more households globally are moving from the lower class – i.e. with relatively few travel needs or goals, into the middle class with aspirations and the finances to travel regularly. This shift is far more prevalent in countries like China and India, where travel has largely been the preserve of the wealthy in the past. Suddenly great swathes of the population have both the desire and the means to travel, which is where the bulk of the growth will come from over the next couple of decades. That’s an interesting point about the rich in the US, however, something I hadn’t heard before. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Can we stop the the silliness that claims that airlines have shifted to a point to point model? 787s and A350s still fly through major hubs. Lufthansa doesn’t fly a 787 to Paris. BA doesn’t fly one to Frankfurt. Air France doesn’t fly one to London. What these aircraft do allow is for more spokes. No airline flies a 787 or A350 outside of their hubs unless it’s a fifth freedom flight, and those are pretty rare.

    I think the biggest failure if the A380 was that it couldn’t pull up to a regular 747 gate. Airports needed huge modifications, and outside of Dubai, all airports were limited by how many A380s they could handle at once.

    1. That’s certainly a factor. I think the hub and spoke / point to point issue is more that hubs are pretty much saturated, so now further aircraft investments will be on smaller aircraft to serve secondary cities.

  4. I believe it was both too late and ahead:
    Too late as the big legacy carriers in Europe and Asia were declining against new global carriers.
    Too early as these new global carriers except Emirates did not yet reached the frequency limits to operate larger aircraft such as the A380. But now they do…

    A the end, it’s not the point to point model which won, it’s the hub and spoke system which became too popular.

  5. I think It was just ignorance on part of …
    Airbus didn’t do enough to grab the market.
    For example, Some stupid laws kept the A380s from Indian skies till 2014, and still they are allowed only in a few airports.
    Had airbus fought to gain acceptability over the world, the picture might be different

  6. Observation at 20:30 GMT Tuesday; per Flightaware there were 108 A380s, 86 747-400s, and 40 748-8s in flight.

  7. There is some good prospect for the A380 when large number of passengers are to be flown within a short span of time … like the annual Hajj to the KSA. But that is only for 3 months in a year.

    1. That’s it. This is the type of thing that a wet leased A380 could be great for, giving airlines the flexibility to lay on large capacity for peak times like Hajj and then handing them back when they’re no longer needed. There are many other festivals like this which the A380 would be great for – Chinese new year, Rosh Hanisha etc.

  8. I dont mind paying more to fly with A380 or perhaps B747 the two Queens of the skies. Their reputations guarantee my safety.

  9. Everyone is missing the point that the A380 has poor per seat operating costs.

    Forget about market timing, size, number of engines etc – what airlines want is decent reduction in lower operating costs. The A380 didn’t bring that.

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