For over a generation, the big jumbos ruled the skies. For the past 50 years, Boeing has produced its iconic 747 planes. Then Airbus upped the game, size-wise, with its A380s. Did Boeing ever feel threatened by the A380, and did they ever develop plans to beat it? The answer to these questions is a little complicated. It’s a case of both yes and no.
The Boeing 747 is an accidental passenger plane
Long before the A380 was even a concept at Airbus, Boeing had built and developed the 747. The first rolled out of Boeing’s workshop in Everett in 1968. But the 747 was initially intended as a cargo plane rather than a passenger aircraft.
The reason for this was the Concorde. Boeing saw the airline industry was focusing on speed ahead of capacity. At the time, the US aircraft manufacturer believed it could not successfully compete with the glamorous and fast European supersonic aircraft (although Boeing did work on an American version of the Concorde).
Instead, Boeing had planned on dominating the cargo market with its jumbo jet. But a boardroom decision changed the course of aviation history. Pan Am, a giant in the American airline business, decided it needed a plane that could carry 300 to 400 passengers. Could the planned 747 do the job? Yes, it could, and the world’s greatest passenger plane was born.
The Boeing 747 ruled the skies for 35 plus years until Airbus began producing the bigger A380. But even before the first A380 took to the skies, Boeing had twigged a couple of emerging trends.
Hub airports were getting full. Instead of the airports expanding, airlines were now looking at flying to alternative regional airports. The hub and spoke airport model was slowly being replaced with a more passenger-friendly point to point model. But most point to point city pairs don’t have the demand to warrant services from big planes like the Boeing 747 or A380.
But Airbus believed there would still be a significant role for a capacity busting big plane like the A380 that operated between hub airports. There was, just not to the extent Airbus hoped.
The A380 failed to commercially take-off
When the A380 launched, it never really got the orders that Airbus anticipated. The A380 was more popular with passengers than airlines. As every armchair airline pundit will tell you, the A380 came out a generation too late. Boeing knew that, and was never really threatened by the A380.
As demand for both the 747 and A380 declined in recent years, both manufacturers decided to wind down production. While Boeing had the smarts not to up the stakes and produce an even bigger plane, their contemporary 777 aircraft family has emerged as their biggest aircraft.
It turns out, Boeing did have a backup plan just in case their forecasts were incorrect, and the A380 went on to be a commercial success.
The card Boeing never went on to play
The Boeing 777X program had a third version, the 777-10 further stretch. Unlike the two current production models, the 777-8 and 777-9, the 777-10 would have been able to carry 450 passengers. This would have placed it within striking distance of the A380 (which can carry between 450-600 passengers).
Boeing even pitched it to Emirates and Singapore Airlines. But Emirates went on to choose the 787 Dreamliner while Singapore Airlines ultimately opted for the Airbus A350.
Boeing watchers will know the 777X program is a troubled one. Delays and production problems have beset the program. Airlines haven’t exactly overwhelmed Boeing with orders either. While the first test flights of Boeing’s 777-9 have commenced, it’s debatable whether the 777-10 will ever make the jump from the drawing boards to the production line.
Rather than competing for competition’s sake, most manufacturers try to find new market opportunities and tackle those. Boeing is no exception. Instead of producing an alternative to the Concorde, it focused on developing heavy lifting. Instead of taking on the A380, Boeing concentrated on developing fuel-efficient smaller point to point aircraft. Boeing would argue that succeeding as an aircraft manufacturer is about innovation rather than imitation.