Building A Giant: The Story Of The Airbus A380

The A380 is a great aircraft and a real engineering success. While the possibilities of high capacity long-haul travel motivated its development, in reality, it has not worked out as well as hoped for Airbus or airlines. Despite its operating challenges and early decline, carrying so many passengers long-haul is undoubtedly one of the most significant aviation milestones.

Airbus A380 Getty
The A380’s is a great aircraft, possibly too much ahead of its time, though. Photo: Getty Images

Motivation for the A380

The story of the A380 goes back to the 1970s and Boeing, Airbus, and the 747. Airbus was formed in 1970, with several European manufacturers coming together to compete against the larger US companies (including, but not only, Boeing).

Airbus’ first aircraft, the A300, was designed to compete with the Boeing 707 but it always had the ambition to go further and challenge in both larger widebodies and narrowbodies. It launched the dual A330/A340 program in 1986 and announced plans to go bigger and take on the 747 at the Farnborough Air Show in 1990.

A300 Air France
Airbus’ story, and competition with Boeing, started with the A300 – but it soon went bigger. Photo: Airbus

Airbus considered several designs and finally selected a high-capacity two-deck aircraft. Boeing had also looked at this concept for the 747 but failed to make it work for emergency exit and evacuation requirements.

Building A Giant: The Story Of The Airbus A380
Airbus first launched the project as the A3XX. Photo: Airbus

Other manufacturers were interested in higher capacity too

Airbus clearly had confidence in the possibilities for higher-capacity aircraft at the time. This was based on an expectation of growth in hub-based operating models, bringing passengers together from several locations to fill aircraft on key routes. It would also help with growing congestion at airports, maximizing the use of valuable slots.

Boeing at the time was moving forward with the lower capacity 777, an aircraft that would appeal much more for point-to-point operations. It did look twice at launching a larger 747. This would have stretched the upper deck and introduced upgrades from the 777.

Other manufacturers also looked at larger aircraft at the time, but nothing else was developed. McDonnell Douglas launched a two-deck proposal, the MD-12, in 1992. Despite interest from airlines, there were no orders. And Lockheed Martin released plans for a 900 capacity two-deck Large Subsonic Transport aircraft in 1996.

McDonnell Douglas proposed the MD-12, but it was never built. Photo: Anynobody via Wikimedia

Passenger and freighter A380

The A380 was originally conceived with both a passenger and a freighter version. A larger passenger version was also proposed, with a stretched fuselage but the same wing design (it would offer an additional capacity of around 100) but there was limited interest and no orders.

There was interest in the freighter version, though. The freight had 27 orders from Emirates, FedEx, UPS, and ILFC (International Lease Finance Corporation). It was never developed, however, for two main reasons.

Firstly there were delays in the development of the passenger version, and the freighter was deprioritized. There were also technical problems with freight loading of the two decks, with the aircraft having more volume than it could support the weight of.

A380 Freighter
An A380 Freighter could have been a great boost for Airbus. Photo: Getty Images

This was quite a setback for Airbus, and it still struggles in the freighter market against the Boeing 747 and 777. And use for freight could have provided a potential use for aircraft now coming out of passenger service.

Building the giant

Airbus was conceived out of European collaboration. Right from its first A300 project, development and construction have been spread across Europe. This remained the same with the A380, but it took on new challenges with the increased size.

The final assembly of all aircraft has taken place at Airbus’ factory in Toulouse. But parts and components are brought together from all over Europe and globally – involving 1,500 companies in 30 countries in total.

A380 construction.
The A380 final assembly line in Toulouse. Photo: Airbus

Most significantly, large wing and fuselage sections were built in other locations in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK:

  • The nose and center sections of the fuselage were built in Saint-Nazaire in France in Northwestern France.
  • The rear fuselage section and tail fin were made in Hamburg.
  • Horizontal tail fins were made in Cadiz, Spain.
  • And the wings were built in Broughton, Wales.
A380 construction.
Airbus wings are made in its Broughton facility in the UK. Photo: Airbus

To move these components around, Airbus developed an extensive transportation network. This involved three specifically designed ‘ro-ro’ (roll-on-roll-off) boats, canal transportation, and road convoys in France with specially modified village roads. Airbus’ Beluga aircraft fleet also transported some parts – but these are used much more for other aircraft.

Airbus A380, Final Plane, First Flight
Airbus marked the last road transport of A380 sections. Photo: Getty Images

251 orders from 14 airlines

The end of the A380 program was announced in 2019, with the production of Emirates’ last aircraft to finish in 2021. With a total of 251 aircraft ordered, it has been far from a failure. Although Airbus has admitted it will not recover its investment, with development costs of €25 billion ($29.7 billion) – more than twice the original estimate.

The total orders have been as follows:

  • Emirates, 123 aircraft.
  • Singapore Airlines, 19 aircraft.
  • British Airways, 12 aircraft.
  • Lufthansa, 14 aircraft.
  • Etihad, 10 aircraft.
  • Qatar Airways, 10 aircraft.
  • Air France, 10 aircraft.
  • Korean Air, 10 aircraft.
  •  Asiana Airlines, six aircraft
  • Thai Airways, six aircraft.
  • Malaysian Airlines, six aircraft.
  • China Southern, five aircraft.
  • ANA, three aircraft. ANA was the last airline to start flying the A380 in March 2019.
Building A Giant: The Story Of The Airbus A380
The A380 entered service with launch customer Singapore Airlines in October 2007. Photo: Getty Images

The decline of the A380

The current state of the A380 needs little introduction. It has already started to fall out of favor before the pandemic, and the aviation slowdown of 2020 and into 2021 has expedited this.

There were several order cancelations before delivery even began. These include Virgin Atlantic, Kingfisher, and Hong Kong Airlines. Qantas and Emirates also both reduced their orders.

The decline in popularity has been for a number of reasons. Crucially, the popularity of the point-to-point operating model has increased over the hoped-for hub-based model. Only Emirates has really made it work for its hub model. And while it has worked well at capacity-constrained airports, it has been too limited in use at smaller airports due to its size and wingspan.

Heathrow A380
The A380 has worked well for slot-constrained airports such as Heathrow, but that alone is not enough. Photo: Heathrow Airport

But other events have also worked against it. Oil and fuel prices rose since its development. The ability (and capacity) of twin-engine aircraft has improved significantly. And alongside this, interest from governments, airlines, and passengers in efficient operation and emissions reduction has increased. Efficient twins have taken over from quadjets in a way few people (and certainly not Airbus) would have predicted in the 1980s and 1990s.

Airbus, Deliveries, 2020
Modern, efficient twin-engine aircraft, such as the A350, have taken over. Photo: Getty Images

Emirates and the A380

Emirates, of course, stands out as an exception to this A380 decline. It has made the aircraft work where other airlines have failed. Most simply, this comes down to its true hub-based operations. But some advantages come from its large fleet. By making such a huge commitment to the type, it benefits from operational advantages and cost savings.

Purchase costs, upkeep, and maintenance are all more acceptable with a larger fleet. As is route and crew scheduling. Low-cost airlines often exploit these advantages with their narrowbody fleets, but Emirates is making it work for widebodies by only operating the A380 and 777.

This will change going forward as it moves to a more diverse and more fuel-efficient fleet. But with such a large fleet, and new deliveries just arriving, it will remain an operator for many years. CEO Sir Tim Clark discussed this in an interview with Simple Flying, explaining how he remains keen on the A380, and how it will remain in the fleet well into the 2030s.

Emirates SkyCargo, Boeing 777, Preighters
The 777X will gradually replace the A380s, but they will remain with Emirates for many years to come. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

A380 retirements

Singapore Airlines was the first to retire aircraft in 2017 – it was in service for less than 10 years. Emirates retired its first aircraft in October 2020 (it was planned before the 2020 slowdown).

And several airlines have sped up retirements due to the pandemic. Air France announced early in the crisis that it would retire its A380 fleet. Etihad’s CEO has expressed the opinion that they are commercially unviable going forward, and they are unlikely to return to the fleet. Lufthansa certainly won’t return them to service any time soon – if ever.

And Qatar Airways’ CEO called the A380 “the airline’s biggest mistake,” and has already confirmed the impairment of five of its 10 aircraft. Coming out of the pandemic the global A380 will look a lot different.

A380 air france parked
Air France retired its A380s early in the crisis. Photo: Getty Images

Post-retirement use

These retirements are especially unfortunate given the very limited second-hand market at the moment. There is little demand for such large aircraft now that airlines don’t want them in the fleet.

Charter use is one option. Only one airline – Hi Fly – has taken on a secondhand A380 (from Singapore Airlines) for charter services. At one point, it was interested in a second aircraft but has now dropped these plans and retired its first aircraft. There remains some possibility for high capacity charter use, such as pilgrimage flights, but this has yet to happen.

Hi Fly Malta Airbus A380 Getty
Hi Fly operated one A380 as a charter but dropped it in late 2020. Photo: Getty Images

Conversion for freight use is another possibility. But the A380 is not ideal for this, as the failure of the freighter version highlighted. We have seen passenger aircraft being used for freight during the pandemic, but this is unlikely to be a long-term use for aircraft.

And use as private aircraft for governments or VIPs has been attempted, but with no success as yet. One private aircraft was ordered from Airbus but never delivered. And Geneva-based company Sparfell & Partners attempted to market second-hand A380s as conversions to private jets – but with no takeup.

Prince Al Waleed's 747
Prince Al Waleed owns a private 747 and tried to take an A380. Photo: Getty Images

As the price declines, perhaps second-hand use may become more attractive. In early 2021, the price of a secondhand A380 had fallen 50% – the most of any aircraft type. But for now, we are likely to see more retired aircraft heading to the graveyard.

The A380 is a great aircraft and a landmark in aviation achievements. The market has moved against it though, taking it out of service earlier than anticipated in many cases. Do you think it will find another use, or are we seeing the end of it now? Feel free to discuss this and other A380 experiences in the comments.