At the 44th Paris Air Show in 2001, Air France announced that it would be purchasing 10 A380s. The first of these arrived in 2009. With a relatively short 11-year service life, the superjumbos were retired when the global health crisis hit hard and fast last year. While we’ve covered extensively the reasons for airlines like Air France retiring the quadjet, why did it order the plane in the first place?
Spacious and environmentally friendly
It was on October 30th, 2009, that Air France took delivery of its first Airbus A380. As part of its media statement, the airline highlighted its large seating capacity (for 538 passengers) as well as improved passenger comfort. It was also said to be quieter, more spacious, and environmentally friendly.
It was said that the aircraft’s four state-of-the-art (at the time) GP 7200 engines, its aerodynamic shape, and its fuselage made the A380 “the most environmentally-friendly aircraft of its category.” Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, CEO of Air France at the time, added that the performance of the A380 was in line with the company’s environmental commitments.
While passenger comfort and a lower carbon footprint would be highlighted, they wouldn’t be the core reason Air France took the superjumbo.
Lower operating costs at a busy hub airport
From a strategic fleet perspective, the aircraft’s size was a major selling point to the French carrier, with the airline saying,
“The A380 is particularly well-suited to the strategy of Air France, and its size is an ideal match for the airline’s powerful hub at Paris – Charles de Gaulle.” – Air France statement
Jean-Cyril Spinetta, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Air France-KLM at the time, said that Air France based its decision to acquire the A380 on “objective criteria which proved that the performance of this aircraft was ideally suited to the Company’s requirements.”
An Air France A380 would have the equivalent capacity to that of a Boeing 777-200 and an Airbus A340-300 combined, the airline said. At the same time, it would offer a 20% reduction in operating costs. In fact, it was noted that each A380 would enable Air France to “save 12 to 15 million euros a year,” – something of utmost importance with the world emerging from the 2008 financial crisis.
Out of its busy home airport of Paris – Charles de Gaulle, the Airbus A380 would allow the airline to transport more passengers in and out while using fewer airport slots- a feature that can greatly improve an airline’s profitability (as long as all of the seats could be filled). The large capacity was even more helpful outside of Paris, with Air France’s A380s serving the busy Paris-New York route, and bustling JFK having limited slots as well.
A national and political obligation
The airline says that as early as 1996, it took part in “working groups including Airbus and the main launch carriers of the A380, to design an aircraft which could meet customer expectations, and has prepared for its arrival since 2003.” Air France adds that it worked with the airport authorities to adapt ground facilities to this new aircraft, trained both crew and ground staff, and invested in appropriate ramp equipment.
With this close involvement from the program’s beginnings, whatever the outcome of the project – and for better or for worse – Air France was, in a way, obligated to order the aircraft.
It wasn’t just the airline’s early input and investment that sealed the deal. Politics were a major factor- as evidenced by the French Transport Minister appearing in the photo op where the airline’s A380 order was announced. That’s because Airbus was (and continues to be) heavily invested in France, hiring French workers. Its facilities just outside Toulouse today employ 28,000 people.
Furthermore, Airbus notes that it currently employs nearly 48,000 workers in France (and more than 63,000 people when Airbus subsidiaries and shareholdings are included). Indeed, Forbes noted in 2019 that the end of the A380 program would cost 3,500 European jobs.
The same Forbes article noted that Boeing had dropped out of talks for a joint venture with Airbus to build a superjumbo, citing that it wouldn’t be possible to make a profit from developing the aircraft. However, politicians in Germany and France spurred Airbus to continue ahead with the program alone.
The A380, therefore, was not just the largest commercial passenger jet in the world, but it was also a symbol of French manufacturing pride. It also represented the livelihood of thousands of French workers- and French voters.
Air France moving forward
It’s clear now, with Air France retiring its entire A380 fleet last year, that the age of large, high-capacity aircraft has come to a close. While the global health crisis might have been a major catalyst, Air France had already made plans to phase out the A380 before the pandemic.
These days, the airline is modernizing its fleet with efficient widebody twinjets like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787. On the regional side, the airline will soon take delivery of the well-regarded A220-300. While these jets won’t offer anywhere near the same amount of space as the A380, they’ll certainly do a better job meeting the company’s environmental commitments. As for having sufficient capacity at slot-constrained airports – this isn’t likely to be an issue for the next few years.