The Airbus A380 Variants That Never Were

After first launching the new A380, Airbus intended to build different variants. They had plans for the A380neo, the A380plus, the A380 stretch and a freighter version of the A380. What did they look like and what role would they have performed?

Airbus designed several other versions of the A380. Photo: Airbus

What types of A380s were proposed?

Airbus had really big aspirations for the A380. They saw the A380-800 as a stepping stone to a whole range of variant aircraft filling different roles for different airlines, much like their rival Boeing did with the Boeing 747 (Which went to spawn many different versions but we will discuss that another time).

The A380-800 was initially designed to carry 555 passengers (22 first class, 96 business class and 437 in economy) to a range of 8,000 nautical miles (14,800 km).

Unfortunately, the Airbus A380 failed to reach sales expectations thanks to a move away from the hub business model and rising fuel prices. Airbus decided to ask airlines who had ordered the aircraft to swap their orders for A330neos or A350s and shut down the production of the A380.

There are only eight A380s left to be delivered but we can wonder what could have been.

The A380 Freighter

Getty Images
The A380F. Photo: Getty Images

One of the first models proposed by Airbus was a freighter version of the A380. This would have had no passengers but been able to carry more cargo than the Boeing 747.  It received orders from DHL and FedEx.

But there was a small design flaw with the aircraft. As the A380 was much heavier than the Boeing 747 freighter, it would have cost far more fuel to take off and thus cost more per item of cargo.

“Boeing is claiming 20 percent lower trip costs, and 23% lower ton-mile costs than the A380. It attributes this to the fact that the empty weight of a 747-8F is 86 tonnes less than that of the A380F, which translates into less fuel required to move the airplane itself.” – Canadian Aviation Report into the two different freighter variants.

The nail in the coffin for the A380F was when production delays in 1996 forced Airbus to change its priority away from the freighter and to the passenger version of the A380. FedEx canceled its order for 10 A380 aircraft and ordered 15 Boeing 777 freighters instead.

“The availability and delivery timing of this aircraft [777], coupled with its attractive payload range and economics, make this choice the best decision for FedEx,” – FedEx statement at the time.

Had the A380F been built, perhaps we would have seen a second life for the retiring A380s today. They could have been gutted and turned into freighter aircraft much like the Boeing 767.

The A380neo and A380plus

The next two versions of the A380 that we need to cover were improvements to the original A380 design. The A380neo came first in 2015 as Airbus looked for a way to improve on the A380 product.

Like neo versions of their A320 and A330, improvements might have included:

Alas discussions with the A380s biggest customer, Emirates, lapsed in 2016.

But in 2017, Airbus decided to try one last time to create a better A380 and relaunched the neo improvements as the A380plus. This was very similar but had a few notable improvements:

  • Increase take-off weight by three tons to 578 t (1,274,000 lb), increasing the range by 300 nautical miles
  • Or an additional 80 passengers for the existing range
  • Special winglets
  • 13% lower fuel costs per seat
  • Improvements from the A380 fuel pump and entertainment system would be converted over, to save on weight
  • Maintenance cycles would be lowered allowing the aircraft to fly an additional six days per year

The A380plus was a great improvement over the first A380 generation design; alas there simply wasn’t a market for it.

Airbus A380
Airbus has already designed a better A380. Photo: Marc Lacoste via Wikimedia

The A380 stretch

The last variant is a combination of multiple different concepts to increase the range or capacity of the A380.

Airbus proposed that they could easily stretch the fuselage of the aircraft as they did with the A320 series. The A380 wing was created in mind for a bigger fuselage one day.

“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,” spoke Airbus executive vice president Tom Williams to Executive Traveller in 2012. “And we have airlines today who tell us they love the A380 but it’s too small! Now it’s not an engineering issue – we can make it bigger – it’s more a question of what would be a good business case and where the market for this is.”

Originally proposed in 2000 alongside the A380, the A380-200 would seat 656 passengers, 100 more than the original A380.

The A380-800 was internally considered the smallest version they would build. Photo: Getty Images

This design was not popular and didn’t get any sales but it didn’t stop Airbus bringing it back in 2007. This time it was called the A380-900. It would seat 650 passengers or 900 if the aircraft was all economy. There was some interest from airlines but nothing ever firmed up.

Airbus would try once more in 2015 but with a much more conservative A380 stretch. It would only seat 50 more passengers. This idea was then rolled into the A380neo and A380plus as a feature.

The final word is that Airbus did also consider some other ideas, such as an A380 combi that could swap out passengers for cargo depending on the route, but it never really left the drawing board. Shame!

If you enjoyed this article, we suggest you also read about the giant Russian A380 that had escalators onboard and the Lockheed Super A380 that could carry over 1,000 passengers. 

What do you think? Which A380 would you have liked to see? Let us know in the comments with your own suggestions!