The Airbus A380 Was Ahead Of Its Time: Here’s Why

For some, the A380 was too late. It failed to pick up the traction of the 747 because ETOPS had made long trips in twinjets possible, and airlines were already moving away from hub and spoke operations. However, there’s another way to look at this. With demand rising and airports running out of space, could the A380 have arrived just a bit too soon?

Etihad Airways Airbus A380-861 A6-APF
Was the A380 before its time? Photo: Vincenzo Pace |

The A380 might make more sense in ten years’ time

While many consider the A380 to be a bit of a white elephant, in the right markets, it made a lot of sense. The trouble was, Airbus didn’t bet on the huge investments that have been made into airport expansion, new airport builds, and new runways added since the A380 was conceived.

Airbus predicted a problem with congestion, and it was right. It was just off on its timeline by a couple of decades. Passenger traffic has grown exponentially for the past 30 years, and although this year has placed a distinct pimple on the face of this growth, given time, demand will begin to accelerate once more.

Right now, less than 20% of the world’s population has been on a plane. In 2017, Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC that 100 million people in Asia would fly for the first time that year. Prior to 2020, air travel was predicted to double over the next two decades. That timeline might have shifted by a few years, but it’s still going to happen.

Lufthansa Airbus A380-841 D-AIMC
Could a capacity crunch at the world’s busiest airports mean the A380 makes more sense? Photo: Vincenzo Pace |

Taking all this into account, could the A380 have arrived just a bit too soon? As demand ticks up and airports run out of space to expand any more, could the A380 be the perfect plane in the future?

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The A380 is made for congested airports

The benefits of the A380 can only really be seen when dealing with a very congested airport, with a high demand for traffic on one or more routes. Shuttling huge numbers of people from a busy airport to another busy airport is the job the superjumbo was built to do.

We can see this clearly when we look at how the type has been used over the years. Take London Heathrow as an example. It’s one of the most congested airports in the world and one of the most in demand. Analysis by Routesonline shows that, when it comes to A380 service, London Heathrow was the second busiest airport, only behind Dubai International for available A380 seats.

In 2019, almost four million seats departed on A380s from Dubai – hardly a surprise when you think about the number that are in service with Emirates. London, on the other hand, played host to almost a million – not bad going when you consider incumbent carrier British Airways only has 10 of the type.

British Airways, Airbus A380, Chateauroux
British Airways was only responsible for a handful of the million A380 seats from LHR in 2019. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

Further evidence can be seen in the way carriers use their A380s. Of the 14 airlines with A380s in their fleet, seven flew to London Heathrow, some multiple times a day.

Other A380-heavy airports in 2019 included Singapore’s Changi, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Seoul Incheon, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi, Frankfurt and Sydney. Each saw more than half a million seats depart on A380s last year. All these airports are highly congested and heavily slot controlled.

A380 allows growth where there is no room to grow

Prior to the crisis of 2020, airlines that operated out of these busy primary airports often struggled to find a way to grow. Expansion of airports nearby major cities is often a slow and cumbersome process, so adding new gates and runways can take years, if not decades.

Indeed, analysis by CAPA last year showed that a lack of slots at Seoul’s Incheon airport was hampering Korean Air’s growth. Now, with the airline set to take over Asiana, the combined A380 fleet will rise to 16 aircraft, making it the third-biggest operator of the type. This will give it a significant advantage at congested Incheon, allowing it to return to growth. Similar patterns can be seen around the world at airports where growth is difficult.

Air France Airbus A380-861 F-HPJG
Korean Air is set to become the third-largest operator of the A380. Photo: Vincenzo Pace |

Where airports can grow, they are in spades. The Journal of Air Transport Management published that, between 2000 and 2016, new runways were added at 55 of the busiest 150 airports in the world. By 2016, over half of these expanded airports were already congested again.

Had the A380 been released at the same time as the 747, its sales figures would likely have been better. While the world is moving towards point-to-point travel with smaller twinjets for now, demand for more services and the thirst of airlines to always move forward will present more capacity crunches in the future.

Despite the pause of 2020, growth will return, and at some point, there will be nowhere left for these primary airports to grow. It is then that an aircraft like the A380 will start to make sense once more.