Very recently, we reported that the A380 is ending its production life soon. Given the failure from Airbus to log new orders, new plans for the reduction in A380 fleet size, and A380s being sent to the scrapyard, the end of the aircraft was, by no means, surprising. Let’s examine the history of how the A380 came to be.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the largest aircraft, by passenger count, was the Boeing 747. The 747 was, by all means, a tremendous success as passengers and airlines alike dubbed it the “Queen of the Skies”. This was the start of the VLA or Very Large Aircraft market and it was no secret that Boeing had an ultimate monopoly.
At the time, there were two other major aircraft manufacturers in the market. Lockheed Martin and McDonnell-Douglas. They were engaged in their own war between tri-jet widebodies. Their L1011 and MD10-30s, however, couldn’t come close to the notoriety and appreciation of the 747. As Lockheed Martin exited the commercial aircraft market and McDonnell-Douglas folded into Boeing, Airbus saw the opportunity to give Boeing a run for their money in the VLA market.
Airbus considered a few different options ranging from two A340 bodies placed side by side and a flying wing idea before settling on the double-decker design we see today. Interestingly enough, McDonnell Douglas was planning their own double-decker in the form of the MD-12, however, this never materialized beyond a design study.
Airbus originally declared their plane the A3XX and finalized the double-decker configuration.
In December 2000, the €8.8 billion project was dubbed the A380. The “8” was significant of the double-decker cross section of the aircraft and the fact that 8 was a lucky number in Asian countries.
As Boeing moved to create the 777 and 787 with an emphasis on point to point travel, Airbus saw the A380 as a new hub to hub aircraft designed for the likes of British Airways, American Airlines, Singapore Airlines, and so on. The project was launched with 50 orders and 6 launch customers.
After five years of development, the first A380 was revealed and took to the skies in Toulouse, France, in 2005.
There is no question that the aircraft was utterly stunning. A four-engine jet capable of flying 500 passengers incredible distances (like Dubai to Auckland) was nothing short of an engineering and technical marvel. Rightly so, Airbus registered the first aircraft as F-WWOW.
As testing continued, the program cost continued on an upward trend and approached €18 billion. Nevertheless, Airbus continued its quest to put the A380 in passenger service.
In 2006, the A380 made its first transatlantic flights to Colombia where it also tested its high-altitude capabilities and cold-weather testing in Canada. After passing these tests and Airbus making some improvements, the final safety checks were completed and the A380 was ready for delivery….or so Airbus thought.
Given the mammoth size of the A380, there were a ton of issues with the wiring that Airbus had to sort out prior to delivering the first aircraft. Almost 350 miles of wiring had to be installed, in addition to other components.
At first, Airbus announced a six-month delay, which became a 12 or 13-month delay, before the final delay that had the first A380 scheduled for delivery in 2007. These delays proved costly to Airbus at a tune of almost €5 billion.
Finally, in 2007, Singapore Airlines received the first A380 and put it into service.
Soon to follow was Emirates, who became the largest customer and operator of the A380.
Both Singapore Airlines and Emirates indicated that the A380 was performing better than anticipated, which brightened the outlook for Airbus as they sought to recover their mammoth cost. Emirates initially placed the A380 in service between Dubai and New York.
Air France, Lufthansa, Qantas, Korean Air, and Malaysia Airlines received their A380s and started them in service.
Initially, the A380 was a success among passengers. Even to this day, many passengers will claim that the A380 is the most comfortable aircraft they have flown in. While this was a great payoff for Airbus’ reputation, it did not translate into better passenger numbers for airlines. Finding 500-600 passengers who are willing to fly from one place to another place on a given day is not always possible and makes for a difficult financial situation for an airline.
Airbus was originally working on the A380F in conjunction with the A380 we know today. Several cargo operators and lessors had even placed orders for a freighter version of the A380. However, the need for more resources devoted towards launching the passenger version led to the A380F’s cancellation. Emirates ended up converting some of the orders of the A380F to A380 passenger versions.
This is one area where Boeing’s 747 came at an advantage. Their 747 offerings came in dedicated cargo versions that proved popular with airlines. In fact, the 747-8F has almost twice the number of aircraft in service when compared to the 747-8 passenger version.
While we will never know if a freighter version of the A380 would have helped it stick around longer like the 747, we can only hypothesize. No doubt, Airbus has certainly been wondering the same.
The A380 was, essentially, taken over by Emirates. Emirates soon became the only airline ordering A380s and Airbus started to cater their product for Emirates.
In recent years, the A380 became synonymous with Emirates. Emirates was the largest customer and operator. Emirates gave life, and eventually killed, the A380 as is. Chances are, if you see an A380 at a major airport, it belongs to Emirates.
While this was good for Emirates, it was a killer for Airbus. Airbus could not effectively market the “Emirates” plane to other carriers. While Emirates could operate showers on board, American Airlines CEO, Doug Parker, famously boasted that no airline could afford to put showers on board without government sponsorship.
In a way, Doug Parker was right. No other airline could afford the lavishness of the A380 that Emirates catered to on board. Emirates set the standard high for airlines and passengers. Every other A380, in comparison, has generally been about transporting the greatest number of passengers without consideration of the “luxury” features.
Emirates was able to successfully work with large numbers of the A380 because Dubai’s airport could cater to their needs. Congested and aging airports such as New York’s JFK, London’s Heathrow (or even Gatwick), Paris CDG, Dallas/Ft. Worth International, Los Angeles International, Chicago’s O’Hare etc. etc. were mired with infrastructure changes to accommodate the massive A380.
The A380 couldn’t work for an American carrier, while the 747 could, simply because the size was more of a liability than an asset. Boarding would take much longer, turnarounds would take much longer, and the sheer amount of money airports would need to invest wasn’t worth their return on investment.
Emirates had everything they needed to make the A380 work for them. Emirates has continued to turn a profit from their A380s and don’t seem to have any genuine interest in retiring a majority of their fleet soon. Airline after airline rejected ordering more A380s. Eventually, British Airways seemed like the only airline that would remotely consider ordering more A380s. Although, Airbus would have to pitch them at a price that would do nothing to help improve the financials of the A380 product line.
But Emirates has its limits for growth. The A380 simply cannot be used on a route from Dubai to Brazzaville or from Dubai to Atyrau. When Emirates ran out of room to grow with their A380s, the A380 had to come to an end.
Airbus is undergoing a bit of a change in dynamics. In the coming months, CEO Tom Enders will give control to Guillaume Faury in April. Faury will already have enough on his plate to deal with from further boosting the A330neo, to ramping up A320neo production, and making a decision on the best way to combat Boeing’s 797 concept.
It makes sense that this would be a good time to end the A380 with no new orders and a shrinking backlog. The end of the A380 would free up resources for Airbus to look at combating Boeing as best as they can. Their competitive duopoly isn’t going anywhere and Faury needs to put his best foot, or aircraft, rather, forward to attract new customers or increase existing orders.
The A380 will always have a special place in the hearts of AVgeeks. Though production will be ending soon, the A380 will still keep flying for some years to come.
Boeing had the Queen of the Skies. Airbus wanted to create the King of the Skies. With the Queen far outlasting the King, the A380 set the aviation world ablaze with new challenges, marvels, and feats.
Only time will tell what the next great innovation in flying will be. For now, we bid farewell to the A380 and step onboard a new adventure in commercial aviation.