Rumors have been circulating for some time that the A380 production is shutting down. However, right now is probably the closest we’ve ever been to cancellation becoming a reality. With multiple airlines pulling out of A380 orders and no more orders incoming, Airbus have got a tough decision to make, and soon.
But what really caused the failure of the A380? After all, it is a legendary aircraft, the biggest the world has ever seen with bars and rest areas built into the cabins. Its spacious, comfortable experience made it a favorite with flyers all over the world, so why wasn’t it the success we’d all hoped?
There are multiple reasons the A380 has failed, from problems in filling it to capacity to the sheer size of the aircraft and the way that limits where it can go. But we think we know the real reason it failed, and it’s all Boeing’s doing.
The new 777X promises to carry a similar number of passengers but in a much more efficient manner. It has better pressurization, ergo happier passengers, and can land almost anywhere that a 737 can. It’s caught the eye of Airbus’s biggest (only) A380 customer, Emirates, who ordered 120 off the bat, and a further 30 later on (and still want more).
So, did the 777X put the final nail in the coffin of the A380? Let’s take a look.
What does the 777X do better than the A380?
In some ways the A380 is the better aircraft, at least on paper. It’s a real crowd pleaser as far as passengers are concerned, and it’s operational stats don’t look bad either. When full to capacity and in its eye-watering 853 passenger configuration, no other aircraft can come close in terms of cost per seat, per journey.
But that doesn’t take into account other factors. Operating with a passenger load of 853 would increase weight, both from people and baggage, which reduces efficiency and range. It would also require more crew members to remain compliant with crew to passenger ratios, which would make the flight more expensive to operate.
Most carriers operate the A380 with two or three classes, seating around 550 – 600 passengers. Even then, it can be difficult to fill all the seats, which adds massively to the overheads of running a flight.
The A380 was designed to alleviate infrastructure problems. In 2007, when it entered commercial service, airports were congested and the A380 was seen as the solution to the problem. However, it inadvertently created a whole new set of problems for airports itself.
The biggest downside of the A380 is the enormous size of the aircraft. It’s sheer dimensions mean entire airports need to be reconfigured to accommodate the big bird. It’s kind of ironic that an aircraft designed to overcome infrastructure challenges has served to generate a whole bunch of infrastructure challenges of its own.
Preparing an airport for the A380 can cost millions. New piers need to be constructed, separate gates installed, and runways extended to allow the giant jumbo to land. An example is at Copenhagen Airport, where their A380 modifications cost the airport in the region of $50m.
As a result, the A380 is limited to service in just 60 cities worldwide. While Airbus argue that these 60 cities are strategic hubs, the lack of flexibility in routes has been a major turnoff for carriers.
The huge wingspan required to fly an aircraft that seats 400+ passengers perhaps contributed to the downfall of the A380. But it’s something which Boeing have overcome with a nifty little bit of design work.
The 777X is capable of landing at pretty much any airport which can service the 777 and 787, which, to be frank, is most of the important airports worldwide. This is because the 777X has been built with unique folding wingtips, which put it in the ICAO code E, which means there are no gate or runway modifications required.
As Boeing say, “The Wing is the Thing…”
In a last ditch effort to attract more orders, Airbus announced a revamped version of the A380 at the Paris Air Show 2017. Dubbed the A380 Plus, it includes new winglets for aerodynamic improvements, which Airbus said would drive down operating costs by around 13% per seat.
However, Boeing’s achievement of widening the choice of city pairs with the 777X totally trumps the Plus. It’s a case of wing tips beat winglets, hands down.
Then there’s the real rub. With low order numbers and high production costs, the A380 costs almost $450m for an airline to purchase. The 777X, in contrast, is being retailed at between $395-$425m, and airlines can probably get a good discount if they’re placing a large order. That’s a huge draw for carriers, and one of the reasons the 777X beats the A380 in our opinion.
What do A380 owners think of the 777X?
The 777X is nipping at the tail of the rapidly departing A380 as we speak. Within weeks of the new model being announced, many A380 users had already placed their orders. Some of the first orders came in from Lufthansa, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar and Singapore, all of whom are already A380 customers. In fact, the only early order-placer of the 777X who doesn’t have A380s was Cathay Pacific.
The sad fact is that the Airbus A380 was designed for a problem that doesn’t really exist anymore. When it entered commercial service 12 years ago, the world’s airports were at capacity. Commercial hubs were overcrowded, and carriers just couldn’t put on enough flights to meet the rising demand. A larger aircraft was predicted to be just the ticket, carrying more passengers further all in one go.
However, since then huge investments at airports all over the globe have improved the situation. Capacity is still close to peak, but advancements in efficiencies of smaller jets, not to mention in air traffic control systems, mean it’s cheaper and easier to fly two, three or even four smaller aircraft than to operate one or two A380s.
Passengers want to get where they’re going, with no interruptions. Nobody wants to transit through a crowded mega hub; they want to ride a plane which takes them from point to point, which is not always possible on the super-sized jumbo. So, the A380 is out and the 787s, A350s and the forthcoming 777X are in.
Airbus took a gamble with the A380. Whether they took too long in bringing it to market or just underestimated the investment powers of airport developments doesn’t matter. The days of the A380 are numbered, and Simply Flying believe that the 777X had a hand in taking it down.