Despite its challenges, the A380 is a great aircraft. The largest commercial aircraft ever built, it has undoubtedly been a significant milestone in aviation. With 251 aircraft ordered, the A380 has been far from a failure, but changing markets and improvements in twin-engine aircraft have made other aircraft more appealing.
This guide takes an in-depth look at this incredible aircraft, from its origins to the possible future for it. It will also look at the aircraft design, configurations, and which airlines have operated have operated it.
Table of Contents
- History and development of the A380
- Specifications, design, and configurations
- Which airlines operate the A380?
- Other A380 variants
- Future of the A380
History and development of the A380
The slowdown in aviation in 2020 has certainly highlighted problems with the A380. Many airlines grounded their fleets, and some have moved to retire the aircraft early. This was not the fate envisioned when the aircraft was launched.
Where did the A380 come from?
The story of large commercial aircraft, of course, starts with the Boeing 747. This iconic aircraft was launched in the 1970s and was a real gamechanger. It changed the economics of flying as passenger numbers were growing, allowing airlines to offer lower fares on the busiest routes.
It also offered much more space, leading not only to larger economy cabins but improvements in first class, installation of onboard lounges, and even the development of a separate business class.
The other leading manufacturers at the time, Lockheed Martin and McDonnell-Douglas, did not develop a competing alternative, focussing instead on single deck and trijet widebodies. It was Airbus, following its initial development of the A300, that decided to enter this market and go after Boeing’s dominance with the 747.
Airbus began working on the project in the 1980s, and announced it formally at the Farnborough Air Show in 1990, with a target of 15% lower operating cost than the 747.
Various versions were looked at, including an interesting design of combining two large fuselages side by side (based on the A340). This eventually led to the concept of a two-deck aircraft, referred to as the A3XX.
It became the A380 once construction began in 2000, with firm orders for 50 aircraft. The naming broke the convention of sequential series numbering. The ‘8’ was chosen for two reasons. Firstly it represents the double-deck design of the aircraft. And secondly, it is considered a lucky number in many Asian countries, a key region for both customers and operations.
The competition that never was
Airbus designed the A380 based on the hub and spoke operating methodology. It would appeal to airlines operating high capacity flights between hubs and key destinations. Boeing, on the other hand, developed the 777 at the same time based on point-to-point operations. This strategy is based on operating more direct flights with smaller aircraft.
Airbus was not alone in believing in the development of very large aircraft for hub based travel. There were several other alternatives at the time for such high capacity aircraft, none of which ever left the design stage, however.
- McDonnell Douglas designed the MD-12 two-deck aircraft long before Airbus. The project was launched in 1992, but despite interest from airlines, there were never any orders.
- Lockheed Martin released plans for a Large Subsonic Transport aircraft in 1996. This was a huge aircraft, with two decks, four aisles, and a passenger capacity of over 900 alongside a whole deck for cargo. A bold plan, but it had too many design and operating challenges to proceed.
- The Sukhoi KR-860 was a Russian proposal for a two-deck passenger or cargo aircraft. It had a capacity of (not surprisingly) 860 (or up to 1000 in all economy), with three aisles.
- And even Boeing tried to follow the idea. It tried twice (in 1996 and 2001) to generate interest in the 747X, stretching the 747 upper deck and incorporating parts of the 777 design. Boeing dropped it though once it opted to follow the point to point model.
Launched in 2005
The first completed A380 was launched at a ceremony in Toulouse in January 2005. It made its first flight on April 27th, and first transatlantic flight, to Colombia, in January 2006. High altitude testing was carried out in Bogota before it flew to Canada for cold-weather testing. It received its type certificate in December 2006.
Customer delivery was initially planned from the end of 2006, but this was delayed. The initial delays were attributed to problems with wiring installation, but these delays grew. This was not good for Airbus. Its parent company share price dropped 26% and led to a €5 billion ($5.7 billion) loss and the early departure of the CEO and the A380 program manager.
Singapore Airlines took delivery of the first aircraft on October 15th, 2007. Emirates was the second customer, but not until August 2008, and Qantas next in October 2008.
Development had been expensive as well as delayed. In 2000, the cost of development was estimated at around €9.5 billion ($10.8 billion). Airbus increased this to €10.3 billion in 2004. According to reporting in The Telegraph, by 2015, costs were claimed to be €15 billion, but analyst estimates claim they were as high as €20 billion.
Construction of the A380
Airbus traces its history back to the consolidation of several companies in the European aviation sector. The same cross European operations are apparent in the design and construction of the A380. The main structural components are built in the UK, France, Germany, and Spain and assembled in Toulouse, France.
Logistics and shipping have been a significant part of this assembly. Some parts are transported using Airbus’ Beluga transport aircraft. Other parts are transported by road and water, along a specially developed route system known as “Itinéraire à Grand Gabarit.”
Parts first travel by ship to Bordeaux (the same ship collects parts from the different locations). Here they transfer to specially constructed barges and finally on roads (with several new bypasses and passing places built) to Toulouse. The whole process was designed to handle a construction rate of just over four aircraft per month.
End of production
The A380 program is now coming to an end. Airbus announced the end of production in February 2019. The reduction of Emirates’ order at the time (from 53 to 14 aircraft) was the final straw.
Airbus chief executive Tom Enders said at the time (and reported by Routesonline),
“As a result of this decision we have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production, despite all our sales efforts with other airlines in recent years. This leads to the end of A380 deliveries in 2021.”
The last aircraft are due to be delivered in 2021. Although with the slowdown in aviation in 2020, and the grounding and early retirement of many A380s, Emirates is looking at possible cancellation of some of its last orders.
Specifications, design, and configurations
Largest commercial aircraft flying
The A380s size is, of course, what has made it popular – with airlines, passengers, and aviation enthusiasts. It is the largest commercial aircraft ever built, by capacity or volume, but not the longest. That accolade goes to the latest version of the Boeing 747. The 747-8 is 79.95 meters long, compared to 72.72 meters for the A380. Simple Flying compared the A380 and the 747 in much more detail previously.
But the A380 does win for height, wingspan, and of course, passenger capacity. The following is a summary of the main technical data for the A380:
- Length: 238 ft 7 in / 72.72 m
- Height :79 ft 0 in / 24.09 m
- Wingspan: 261 ft 8 in / 79.75 m
- Width: 23 ft 5 in / 7.14 m
- Cabin Width: 21 ft 4 in / 6.5 m
- Maximum takeoff weight: 1,268,000 lb / 575,155 kg
- Operating empty weight: 611,000 lb / 277,144 kg
- Max payload: 185,000 lb / 83,914 kg
- Cargo Volume: 6,190 cu ft / 175.2 m3
The maximum capacity (exit limit) of the A380 is 853. This was established as part of aircraft testing in 2005/6 and will be the actual number safely evacuated in testing. A typical realistic capacity is around 550.
To see this in context, compare it with the second largest aircraft, the 747. This offers a maximum exit limit of 605, and a typical capacity of 410.
A380 engines and model variants
The A380 is available with two different engine options, the Rolls-Royce Trent 900 or the Engine Alliance GP7270. These different options lead to the three variants of the A380 that have separate type certificates:
- The A380-841 was certified in December 2006, with Trent 970 engines.
- The A380-842 was certified at the same time using slightly more powerful Trent 972 engines.
- And the A380-861 followed in December 2007, with Engine Alliance GP7270 engines.
The Rolls-Royce Trent 900 is developed from the Trent 800 used on the Boeing 777, and the Trent 500 on the A340. The GP7000 is developed from the GE90 engine. Both these engines make the A380 quieter than the 747 or the 777 (although newer aircraft improve on this). This is especially significant as some airports, including London Heathrow, lower their landing fees for quieter aircraft. Air Insight Group showed, in 2017, how this alone could save over $18 million over 15 years.
The following is a summary of the A380’s performance statistics (sourced from Airbus data):
- Cruise speed: 903 km/h / Mach 0.85
- Maximum speed (maximum operating speed): 945 km/h / Mach 0.89
- Range: 15,186 kilometers / 8,200 nautical miles
- Service ceiling: 13,000 m / 43,000 ft
Range and fuel efficiency are vital measures for any aircraft. The A380 is beaten by several aircraft. These days, the A350-900ULR reaches an impressive 18,000 kilometers range (seeing it serve routes such as Singapore to New York). But even around the same time as the A380 launch, Boeing offered the 777-200LR with a range of 15,844 kilometers. Critically though, it beat the 747-8 with its range of 14,315 kilometers.
Things are not so clear when it comes to fuel efficiency. The A380 is not going to win awards here, and nor is the 747. One of the main reasons for its cancellation is the move by airlines to more efficient twin-engine aircraft. Both manufacturers claim their aircraft to be the more efficient high capacity quadjet. Some interesting analysis reported by FlightGlobal, though, showed the A380 ahead of the 747. Overall, its fuel burn comes in at 2% lower per seat, with the cost per seat on the 747-8 9% higher.
With around 40% more cabin floor area than the 747, the A380 offers plenty of space for different layouts. While its maximum passenger capacity is 853, no airline has tried this. The closest they got was a plan from Air Austral to outfit two aircraft with 840 economy class seats. This never happened, however.
Whether an all-economy A380 service could work is an interesting question. Without the extra revenue from premium cabins, airlines would be relying on just high economy class demand. Simple Flying looked in some detail at this, using the case of Norwegian operating HiFly’s charter A380 on its London to New York route.
We calculated that it would cost an average of $340 per seat for this flight, not leaving much room for profit for a low-cost operator. For comparison, similar analysis showed that Qantas needed to make $700 per seat on a much longer Sydney to Los Angeles flight, but this is for a full-service airline and includes business and first class seats.
In reality, all airlines operate with multiple cabins. Emirates shows well how this can vary between configurations. It operates three different cabin layouts:
- Three class, Ultra Long Range – 489 passengers
- Three class, Long Range – 517 passengers
- Two class – 615 passengers
Most airlines follow a similar pattern in their cabin layouts:
- Economy class is arranged 3-4-3 on the lower deck, and often 2-4-2 when installed on the upper deck. Airbus has proposed an 11 across economy option, but this has yet to be tried.
- Premium economy offers more space, often 2-4-2 on the lower deck or 2-3-2 on the upper deck.
- Business class has more variation, depending on the airline’s choice of seats. British Airways has kept its old Club World design and packs in a 2-4-2 configuration with yin-yang seating. Many airlines with suite-style seating go with 1-2-1.
- In first class, some airlines have seats or suites arranged 1-2-1. Others, including Etihad, go with a single-aisle layout. We cover many A380 first class layouts in our guide to first class.
Emirates does, in fact, operate the highest capacity layout of any airline with its 615 two-class configuration. For the lowest capacity, look at Singapore Airlines’ four-class layout with just 379 seats.
Room for first class and other upgrades
The extra space on the A380 has allowed some innovative and luxurious additions. For regular flyers in premium cabins, as well as aviation enthusiasts, this has been a leading benefit of the A380. Interestingly, the same happened when the 747 was introduced. The extra space offered, in particular with its upper deck area, led to some excellent new lounges and bars, for example.
On the A380, we have seen a new generation of spacious first class suites being installed, many now offering fully enclosed privacy.
Etihad has gone even further, offering a three-room private Residence on its A380, as well as spacious first class apartments with separate seat and bed.
Showers have appeared for the first time as well. Emirates and Etihad, for example, both make these available to first class passengers. And many airlines have used the space to offer a bar or lounge area for business and first class passengers.
Which airlines operate the A380?
Orders and deliveries
The A380 has had a total of 251 orders from 14 airlines (from Airbus data). HiFly has also acquired one aircraft as a charter aircraft. As of July 2020, there are nine aircraft still to be delivered.
Interestingly, no US airlines ordered the A380. Simple Flying looked in detail at this previously. The main reasons include the hub model not working as well at US airports, and a preference to stick with Boeing and replace the 747 with the 777.
The following 14 airlines operate, or have operated, the A380. For a complete list of all airlines and routes, take a look at our guide to routes.
Air France, 10 aircraft. Air France was the first European airline to take delivery of the A380, in 2009. It operated its fleet to 16 destinations. It became one of the first airlines to retire its entire fleet, announced in May 2020. Simple Flying took a look back at the history of Air France’s A380 recently.
ANA, three aircraft. ANA was the last airline to start flying the A380 in March 2019. It operates only between Tokyo and Honolulu and features an unusual turtle themed livery.
Asiana Airlines, six aircraft. These operate to seven destinations from Seoul, including short but high capacity routes to Tokyo and Hong Kong.
British Airways, 12 aircraft. British Airways operates all aircraft in the same four-class configuration (notably lacking the new Club Suite product it has released), to eight destinations in North America as well as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Johannesburg.
China Southern, five aircraft. China Southern uses the A380 for long-haul flights to Los Angeles as well as the high capacity Beijing to Guangzhou route.
Emirates, 115 aircraft, and eight more on order. Emirates operates by far the largest fleet of A380s. It was the cancellation of some of its orders that marked the end for the aircraft. Emirates operates the A380 to over 50 destinations, including the shortest route the aircraft operates – Dubai to Muscat.
Etihad, 10 aircraft. Routes include London, New York, Sydney, and Melbourne. It has operated shorter routes such as Mumbai in the past.
Hi Fly, one aircraft. Portuguese operator Hi Fly has the only charter A380 aircraft. Singapore Airlines previously operated this, retiring it in 2017.
Korean Air, 10 aircraft. These operate to six destinations, including nearby Taipei.
Lufthansa, 14 aircraft. The airline flies to 12 destinations from both Munich and Frankfurt.
Malaysian Airlines, six aircraft. It operates long-haul just to London (after it dropped the A380 from other European routes) and regionally to Hong Kong. The airline also notably removed its first class in 2018, selling the seats instead as Business Suites.
Qantas, 12 aircraft. These operate from both Sydney and Melbourne to the US, Dubai, London, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
Qatar Airways, 10 aircraft. Qatar flies to Australia, China, Thailand, and three destinations in Europe. The A380 has an uncertain future with Qatar Airways. The airline has already indicated it will start retirement in 2024 and has lately removed the aircraft from its schedules until June 2021.
Singapore Airlines, 19 aircraft. Singapore Airlines was the launch customer for the A380, and also the first to start to retire aircraft. It operates to 13 destinations in Australia, Asia, and Europe. Singapore Airlines is widely regarded, and rewarded, as having some of the best business and first class products, leading the way with its A380.
Thai Airways, six aircraft. These operate to Japan and three locations in Europe.
A380 canceled orders
Some additional A380s came close but never happened. Some of the most significant canceled orders include:
- UK airline Virgin Atlantic probably had the longest pending order. It ordered six aircraft in 2001, but never took delivery and eventually canceled the order only in 2018 (according to FlightGlobal).
- Leasing company Amedeo placed an order for 20 aircraft in 2014. It canceled this in 2019 after failing to find any leasing customers; a good indicator of the changing market and need for the aircraft.
- Russian airline Transaero had an order for four A380s. Amidst financial difficulties, it backed out of the orders just a few months before the first aircraft was due.
- Kingfisher was the only Indian airline to order the A380. It had ambitious plans for 10 aircraft but ceased operations before taking delivery.
- Hong Kong Airlines had 10 aircraft on order, but these were canceled sometime before 2014, perhaps as it backed away from European plans.
- Qantas ordered eight additional aircraft in 2006 but delayed then canceled the order in 2019.
- Emirates likewise cut back its ordered aircraft in 2019, canceling 39 aircraft and instead ordering twin-engine A350 and A330neo aircraft.
- Perhaps the most interesting order that never happened was as a replacement for the Air Force One Boeing VC-25 aircraft. In 2009 FlightGlobal reported that the US Air Force was interested in the A380, but that Airbus would not bid as shifting production to the US for just three aircraft did not make sense.
Other A380 variants
While there has only been one version of the A380, with three different variants based just on different engine options, others have been planned and dropped.
The A380 freighter
The most significant was the A380F or freighter version. When the A380 was launched, Airbus originally proposed a freighter version alongside the passenger version. This gained interest and had 27 orders, including from FedEx and UPS. This would have been good for Airbus, as the freighter market is dominated by Boeing, with the 747 and 777 freighter versions.
The A380F, though, was never developed, for a couple of main reasons:
- Although it offered higher cargo capacity than the 747, the increased weight of the A380 lead to higher operating costs.
- Delays early in the A380 program caused the priority to switch to the passenger version, and it lost customer interest (and orders).
A380 stretch (A380-200 and A380-900)
At launch in 2000, Airbus proposed a stretched version of the A380, the A380-200, seating around an extra 100 passengers. The aircraft was designed with larger versions in mind. As Airbus executive vice president Tom Williams said to Executive Traveller in 2012,
“The wings are designed for a much larger airplane, so we have the capability of going to a bigger fuselage – we can stretch the fuselage very easily.”
Engineering though was not the problem, orders were. There was little interest at the time in such a larger version. Airbus however tried again, with the A380-900 in 2007, but to no avail.
In 2015, plans emerged for an upgraded A380, the A380neo. This would offer improved efficiency, in the same way as the A320neo family, with new engines and modified wings. It would also have a stretched fuselage with an extra capacity of 50, along the same lines as the previous proposed stretched version.
This option was discussed with several customers, but (according to reporting in Aviation Week) did not proceed once talks failed with Emirates.
As a last attempt to improve the aircraft, alongside decreasing orders, Airbus proposed the A380plus in 2017, but again it did not proceed. This was similar to the A380neo but offered several additional improvements, including:
- Increasing maximum take-off weight, to allow an additional 80 seats or increased range
- New winglets to improve fuel economy
- Improvements based on the A350 fuel pump and entertainment systems
- Lowered maintenance cycles to give extra flying time
Future of the A380
Production of the A380 will finish in 2021 once the last Emirates aircraft are delivered. Airbus already announced the end of the program in 2019.
Why has the A380 not worked out as planned?
We have looked before at why the A380 has not been so successful. The idea at the time of launch was that airlines would use it for high capacity hub to hub routes. This would lower their costs with more passengers, as well as getting around problems with crowded airports and scarce landing slots. Over time, things have changed, and the aviation industry has moved against this way of working.
Some of the main flaws and contributing factors have included:
- The increase in efficiency, and permitted operations under ETOPS, of twin-engine aircraft.
- Its limitations to high capacity routes. The A380 is expensive to operate and needs to reach capacity.
- Changing preferences from passengers and airlines for point to point travel.
- Limitations in airports it could operate at due to its size.
With the A380 being increasingly retired from fleets in 2020, the possibility of a second-hand market for the A380 is important.
So far, only one airline, Hi Fly, has purchased a second-hand A380. It has seen many different uses, including charter by low-cost airline Norwegian, and relief flights during the coronavirus pandemic. This has worked well for Hi Fly, and it has indicated it may be willing to take another A380 if improved airport infrastructure increases the possibilities for use.
No other buyers, however, have appeared for aircraft, and some have now started to head for decommissioning. This is not a bad option, with an A380 at half-life still being worth $30 million to $50 million, according to reporting by FlightGlobal.
Conversion for freight is another possible use, but, as was seen with the failed A380 Freighter version, the aircraft is not great for this. Its high empty weight makes it less cost-effective than other aircraft. It’s a good use of a grounded aircraft, but not a long term plan for the aircraft, with dedicated freight aircraft much better designed for this.
There are a couple of examples now of this taking place. Malaysian Airlines has received permission to carry cargo on its passenger A380. And Hi Fly has converted its A380 for freight use in July 2020. It has removed all the economy seating to allow for more freight (though there are strict limits based on the cabin and floor design).
Another possibility is using the aircraft for high capacity, but potentially infrequent, routes such as pilgrimage routes. Again, Malaysia Airlines, under its sub-brand Amal, has tried this for the Kuala Lumpur to Mecca route. If re-fitted as all-economy, these could carry 853 passengers at full capacity for this limited period. Its an idea, and may save a few aircraft, but unlikely to change to future of the A380.