When the Airbus A380 was introduced, many believed that it would mark the end of the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747. However, the retirement of the A380 program and the phasing out of the 747 show that it will be a rare sight to see both types by the time this decade is over. Nonetheless, at their peak, which aircraft was best? The fully loaded 800-seater A380 (in a terrifying all-economy configuration) or the long-range 747 with a private cabin onboard?
Table of Contents
Firstly, we will be looking at official specifications from the Boeing and Airbus websites. When it comes to technical specifications, we will primarily be comparing the latest version of each model: The Boeing 747-8, and the most up to date version of the Airbus A380-800.
Additionally, we will pretend that we are an airline that is looking for a large capacity aircraft for both passengers and cargo. While it goes without saying that a Boeing 747 freight variant would easily beat an A380 (as an Airbus cargo variant was never built), we will try to remain fair and imagine that we are primarily a passenger airline first.
We will also be looking for the best flexibility and the most cost-effective operations. Some aircraft might provide a better customer experience when it comes to quieter engines and better cabins. We will take these into account but will prioritize what looks better on paper. Additionally, we will assume that both are just as easy to fly as each other.
|Typical capacity||410 in 3-class||555|
Carriers set up their aircraft to how they wish. Lufthansa, the operator that introduced the 747-8 for passenger services, flies its units in four classes. It can fit up to 362 passengers throughout its first, business, premium economy, and economy classes. Lufthansa launched the plane with its new business seats, which were arranged in the form of a “V” whereby two neighboring seats are angled towards one another along a central axis.
Meanwhile, the largest operator of the A380, Emirates, has three different sets of capacity, depending on the distance of the flight.
- Three class – 489 Ultra Long Range
- Three class – 517 Long Range
- Two class – 615 Long Range
No matter how airlines configure their cabins, the Airbus A380 pushes the 747 right out of the gate with passenger capacity. In a full economy configuration, the A380 can handle 250 more passengers than the 747. Nonetheless, this is because it was designed nearly 35-40 years after the Boeing 747 first took flight, and Airbus knew exactly what metrics it wanted to focus on.
Winner: Airbus A380
The pair were both the epitome of flying with style for their generations. The 747 was indeed a pioneer when it came to spacious cabins while delivering top quality customer experiences. However, the addition of so much extra cabin space onboard an A380 gives it more room for bars, showers, lounges, and full private suites.
One thing that the 747 has over the A380 is the creative ways that its early operators marketed its top deck. For instance, Delta Air Lines launched the “world’s first flying penthouse apartment” on its units back in the 1970s. Regardless, Airbus still wins this round by providing so much space but still enabling its operators to offer such classy interiors.
Winner: Airbus A380
Room for goods
|Cargo Volume||6,225 cu ft (176 m3)||6,190 cu ft (175.2 m3)|
|Length||250 ft 2 in / 76.3 m||238 ft 7 in / 72.72 m|
|Height||63 ft 6 in / 19.4 m||79 ft 0 in / 24.09 m|
|Cabin width||20 ft (6.1 m)||21 ft 4 in (6.5 m)|
|Maximum takeoff weight||987,000 lb / 447,700 kg||1,268,000 lb / 575,155 kg|
|Operating empty weight||485,300 lb / 220,128 kg||611,000 lb / 277,144 kg|
|Max. payload||167,700 lb / 76,067 kg||185,000 lb / 83,914 kg|
Cargo is a very lucrative source of revenue for carriers, and our airline is no exception. Looking at cargo capacity, the Boeing 747 has more capacity despite having less powerful engines and less thrust.
Airbus has leaned hard into serving passengers and let Boeing slip ahead for this category. Additionally, we do have to admit that a cargo version of the Boeing 747 exists, and it is quite popular. The 747-8F is helping several major players ship goods across the globe. Atlas Air, UPS, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific, AirBridgeCargo, and Nippon Cargo, are all using the freighter on their operations.
According to a press release, when receiving its first 747-8 freighter, former Cathay Pacific director of cargo, Nick Rhodes, shared how vital shipping operations are to the company.
“Cargo is a very important part of Cathay Pacific’s business, accounting for around a third of our revenues in a good year. We are very excited about bringing the 747-8F into our freighter fleet because it will give us an increased payload over a longer range with superb operating economics, enabling us to provide an even better service to our customers. These new aircraft will play an important role in our continued efforts to develop Hong Kong as a leading international air cargo hub.”
Moreover, in another press release, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker also emphasized the value of cargo services when he received the Doha-based airline’s first of two 747-8Fs in 2017.
“The addition of our very first 747-8 Freighter is a significant moment for our Cargo division, and a welcome addition to our 20-strong cargo fleet of wide-body aircraft.”
With society now relying on the delivery of goods more than ever, there could be an extension to the life of the 747.
Winner: Boeing 747
Range and fuel capacity
|Fuel capacity||63,034 US gal / 238,610 litres||85,472 US gal / 323,546 litres|
|Cruise||Mach 0.86 / 914 km/h||Mach 0.85 / 903 km/h|
|Maximum operating limit speed||Mach 0.9 / 956 km/h||Mach 0.89 / 945 km/h|
|Range||7,730 nmi / 14315 km)||8,200 nmi / 15186 km|
|Ceiling||43,100 ft / 13,100 m||43,000 ft / 13,100 m|
|Engines (4×)||GEnx-2B||Rolls Royce Trent 900|
The range of the A380 beats the 747-8. Even though the difference is not overwhelming, it is enough to give confidence for ultra-long-haul operators. Even when it comes to fuel capacity, this model leads the way. Immediately, it is evident that the Airbus A380 can burn through just over 20,000 more US gallons of fuel than the Boeing 747.
Winner: Airbus A380
But what about fuel efficiency?
Just because Airbus’ jumbo has more fuel doesn’t mean that it’s any cheaper to run. Boeing claims that the 747-8 is more cost-effective per seat per mile than any other aircraft. However, Airbus claims that the A380 is the most efficient jet in the world.
It does not make much sense to compare the two jets in fuel burn and seat-mile cost. The planes are considerably different in size. In this case, the standard metrics to measure efficiency do not come into play. Nonetheless, fuel efficiency is one of the key reasons why operators are choosing to veer away from both types.
Which aircraft is more popular with carriers?
Let’s look at how the market reacted to both of these aircraft and see if a pattern emerges. We will look at the lifetime of both aircraft.
Boeing 747 orders: 1,571 (As of June 2020) – averaging approximately 30 per year since its first flight in 1968.
Airbus A380 orders: 251 – averaging 13 per year since its first flight in 2007.
…Oh right, and the A380 was canceled. So. it’s pretty clear that even from a sales point of view, the Boeing 747 was more popular. Yet, that may have been from it being a proven aircraft with nearly 40 years of experience on the A380.
Winner: Boeing 747
The cost of the jets
Here is the list price for each aircraft:
Airbus A380 – $445.6 million
Boeing 747-8 – $402.9 million
The Boeing 747 is actually cheaper to buy and less expensive to operate. It might be smaller in terms of passenger capacity, but in a world where airlines want smaller aircraft that fly point to point, is that $45 million extra really worth it? This amount is almost $300,000 per extra passenger, which will need to be made up over the lifetime of the jet.
Granted, if the A380 had been popular enough to reach higher production capacity, the price might have fallen. However, we don’t live in that world. Lastly, it’s likely that Airbus would have price matched the 747 for any customer (as they are known to do).
Winner: Boeing 747
Longevity and practicality
Ultimately, the A380 was the realization of a dream. A giant floating village that could fly across continents with showers, lounges, and more. However, the world quickly moved on.
Today, airlines are looking for smaller aircraft that can operate between regional airports, and flying islands just don’t have a place anymore. If an airline can fill up an entire A380, then it can be a huge profit driver, but that is becoming increasingly rare.
Capacity is a crucial pull factor for the A380. Therefore, with more precise options, the plane is becoming increasingly redundant. In recent years, several airlines have been planning the phase-out of the superjumbo in favor of more cost-effective solutions. It has only been in service since 2007, but companies quickly realized the drawbacks of having such a monument.
It’s for this reason that the smaller capacity 747 just seems to win this round. Nonetheless, it is a bittersweet victory, as the sun is also setting on the icon. Modern aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and the upcoming Boeing 777X almost match capacity but with massive improvements in design, cost, and fuel efficiency.
Winner: Boeing 747
The current climate
The global health crisis has undoubtedly rocked the aviation market this year. Two of the industry’s most significant casualties are this pair. Subsequently, both widebodies were already being phased out by airlines across the continents. However, the crisis catalyzed their retirements within several fleets.
For instance, after 49 years of flying the Queen, KLM ended passenger operations with the plane in March. The flag carrier of the Netherlands had a rich history with the jumbo, and the two grew within the industry together with a relationship that lasted nearly five decades.
Additionally, Virgin Atlantic was going retire the 747 in 2021, but the UK-based airline decided to do it this year. The carrier and the jet created an iconic partnership that symbolizes an exciting period for British passenger aviation.
One of the most famous retirements in 2020 is related to the Qantas A380. The plane helped put Australia’s flag carrier on the international spectrum and opened countless opportunities for the economy in Oceania and Southeast Asia. Qantas was going to let go of its six remaining units before the year was over. However, it soon felt like that there was no time like the present.
Moreover, this summer, Air France retired its last A380 jet. The flag carrier of France was initially going to phase the type out by 2022. However, the changes in circumstances caused the airline to make amendments to its plans.
Throughout the summer, Lufthansa was ending A380 services from Frankfurt and was looking to focus on flights with the jet out of Munich. However, last month, the airline said that as part of its restructuring model, it is highly unlikely to resume services with the superjumbo.
Despite both types being rapidly phased out, the 747-8 is yet to be officially retired due to the pandemic. Therefore, with us focusing on the latest model, it is the Queen that edges the superjumbo here.
Winner: Boeing 747
Over the decades, Boeing 747 variants have found careers in other fields after being retired by passenger airlines. Other than going on to become cargo units, several editions have been put to use creatively in different ways.
For instance, NASA took on a former Pan Am and United Boeing 747 and transformed it into the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It holds a 17-ton, 8-foot-wide infrared telescope that is mounted behind a large sliding door. This aircraft flies into the stratosphere at 38,000-45,000 feet, putting it above 99% of the Earth’s infrared-blocking atmosphere for astronomers to study the solar system.
Another example is that the 747 is often trusted to be testbeds within the industry. Recently, a unit that had been with Qantas for nearly five decades was given a new role as Rolls-Royce chose to use it for testing. The plane will trial current and future jet engine technology that will help to revolutionize aviation and reduce emissions. This procedure will hopefully break new ground when it comes to efficiency.
Of course, it’s early to say whether the A380 will prove to be as useful in its afterlife. Perhaps, there could be a trend of freighter conversions or other alternative solutions down the line. However, the 747 has already proven its versatility in several ways.
Winner: Boeing 747
Leaving a legacy
Altogether, the legacy of the Boeing 747 speaks for itself. Despite it being half a century old, it has managed to adapt over the years and still find a role within the industry. The fact that the most recent upgrade of the jet was only introduced last decade shows that there was a demand for the type until recently.
Meanwhile, for all of its grandeur, several Airbus A380s are being permanently grounded before they could reach their 15th birthday. By the time the 2020s are over, it could be a real treat to see one in the skies. Ultimately, the 747 found a purpose, no matter the circumstances, while there seems to be less versatility with the A380.
It is sad to see the two powerhouses become less prevalent as the world continues to change. Regardless, there are undoubtedly millions of passengers that have experienced so many meaningful moments thanks to the two widebodies.
Overall winner: Boeing 747
Nonetheless, there are undoubtedly those that have their favorites when it comes to the two widebodies. Moreover, it also comes down to practical use for airlines. If a carrier can continue to fill every seat on its A380 aircraft throughout the years, then the superjumbo may be the preferred option. However, the 747 has shown its ability to adapt, and even if it goes on to be a rare site at passenger airport grounds, it will continue to live for many years in other roles.
Altogether, what are your thoughts about the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380? Out of the two widebodies, which one do you think is better, and why? Let us know what you think of the jets in the comment section.