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 both Boeing’s and Airbus’s 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 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 to focus on.
Winner: Airbus A380
The pair were both the epitome of flying with style for their generations. 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 actually a very lucrative source of revenue for carriers, and our airline is no exception. Looking at cargo capacity, the Boeing 747 actually has more capacity on board 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 important 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 its 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: 1,555 – averaging 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 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 cheaper 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. But the world quickly moved on.
Today, several passengers are looking for smaller airlines that can operate between their 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.
In the current climate, both jets are becoming the main casualties in the industry. Many operators are giving early retirements to the pair due to their inefficiency in the present conditions.
With capacity being a crucial pull factor for the A380, it is more or less redundant in the present situation. Several airlines were already phasing out 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 Boeing 777x and the Airbus A350 almost match capacity but with massive improvements in design, cost, and fuel efficiency.
Winner: Boeing 747
Leaving a legacy
Altogether, the legacy of the 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 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
What are your thoughts on the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380? Which one do you think is better, and why? Share your opinion about the jets with us in the comment section.