Why Did Airbus Build The A380 Superjumbo?

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Airbus built the world’s biggest commercial passenger aircraft, the Airbus A380. But why was it constructed when other manufactures, such as rival Boeing, were focusing on smaller planes and didn’t want to follow in Airbus’ footsteps? Let’s explore the business case of the Airbus A380.

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The Airbus A380 was built for a different market today. Photo: Getty Images.

The market conditions in the 90s

The story of the A380’s design begins back in the early 90s. Airbus had just completed the A330 and A340 designs and was riding high on a wave of consumer confidence. Looking at the market for inspiration for their next cutting-edge design, Airbus noticed several things:

  • Airport slots at popular hubs cost millions of dollars, and some airports like London Heathrow were so popular that no free landing slots were available.
  • This lack of extra slots meant that airlines could not increase the number of flights into the airport (frequency) to gain market share and thus would need to focus on capacity.
  • These flights were already operating with the biggest commercial aircraft at the time (the Boeing 747-400 and Boeing 777-300), and there was no bigger capacity aircraft on the market to upgrade further.

Airbus saw that hub-to-hub travel was becoming more popular. Airlines like Emirates were starting to focus entirely on the hub model by having a central hub in Dubai and using it to link faraway destinations. They needed a large capacity aircraft that could transport passengers a long distance.

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The Airbus A380 would become a crucial part of the Emirates fleet. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

When it came to flying long-haul, Airbus thought that no one would want to fly so long without a shared space (such as a bar) to patronize. A bigger plane would mean more room to mingle and stretch the legs and would, therefore, be more attractive for long routes.

The economics also made the A380 idea attractive to airlines. The A380 can transport so many passengers at once (853 passengers if configured all-economy), that it offers the lowest fuel burn per seat of any aircraft.

When it came to airline customers, Airbus saw a demand from flag carrier airlines, especially long-haul flag carriers who operated popular routes like London to New York, and London to Sydney. However, at the launch of the project in 2000, only two airlines gave public support to the $15-25 billion project.

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Thus Airbus set out to build the next generation of super big aircraft, a ‘superjumbo’ if you will. The rest is history.

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The A380 was very popular with passengers, but was it the right economic choice for airlines? Photo: Getty Images

Was this the right design choice?

Was this aircraft the right choice for Airbus to build? We only need to look at the fact that Airbus has shut down the production line for the A380 due to a lack of popularity. The aircraft was too expensive to operate unless fully loaded, and it was hard to sell so many seats at once. Plus, it could only be used on select routes that had the demand, or could even take the oversized plane!

It is even questionable if a second-hand market even exists for the A380, as leasing agents had already scrapped recently retired units when they were unable to find new customers for the type.

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The industry has since moved away from the hub to hub model popularised by Emirates and fueled by the Airbus A380. Passengers still want to fly vast distances, but newer aircraft designs are focusing on skipping the hubs and flying direct to destinations with a smaller passenger load.

The A380 was a fantastic and visionary aircraft but built a little too late. That said, had Airbus made a plane like the A380 today, but with the economics of a smaller Boeing 777 or Airbus A350, then perhaps the A380 would be hailed as a success story.

What do you think? Do you believe the Airbus A380 was a smart move by Airbus? Let us know in the comments.

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