Why Did Air France Order The Airbus A380?

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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?

June 18th,  2001 at the 44th Paris-Le Bourget Air Show: French Transport Minister Jean-Claude Gayssot (L) French Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard (C) and Jean-Cyril Spinetta, CEO of Air France, pose with a scale model of Airbus A380 after the announcement of the purchase of 10 aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

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.

Airbus COO Fabrice Bregier, James Moravecek, President of Engine Alliance, Air France-KLM Chairman of the Board, Jean-Cyril Spinetta, Air France-KLM CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, and Airbus CEO Thomas Enders at the end of their visit to the A380 cabin on October 30, 2009. Photo: Getty Images

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.”

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Air France’s A380s offered nine La Première-First seats on the main deck, 80 Affaires-Business seats on the upper deck – and 449 Voyageur-Economy seats spread over the two decks. 22 flight attendants would crew the jet to serve the 538 customers. Photo: Air France

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.

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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.

A380 air france parked
Air France was actually the first carrier to announce a full retirement of its A380 fleet. These have been put up for sale without much luck in finding buyers. Photo: Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

Airbus A380, Final Plane, First Flight
A photo of the last Airbus A380 being transported to Toulouse in sections. Photo: Getty Images

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.

Air France A220
Air France will deploy the efficient new Airbus A220 for its short and medium-haul operations. Photo: Air France

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.

Do you think politics played too large a role in the A380 being developed? Let us know in the comments.
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