The A380, a giant of the skies that just didn’t take flight.

When you see the A380 for the first time, there’s something special about it. It’s a large aircraft – the biggest passenger aircraft ever built with a wingspan that could easily fit across a football field. If the aircraft was fitted only with economy seats, it would take 800 passengers. We all know how uncomfortable a long-haul flight can be but aboard the A380 a flight of 16 hours half-way across the world is like a ride in a Rolls Royce of the skies. This has made it a favourite amongst passengers and crew with its spacious and well-heeled interiors.

 

Airlines saw this differently: Airbus has only sold 250 aircraft that has rolled off the production line with early estimates, Airbus was hoping to sell 750. Now its production line will go quiet at the end of 2021. The A380 has only been in service for 13 years. It was conceived on a philosophy of a bygone era in which the 747 ruled the skies in large numbers. And with a hefty price tag of over $450 million per aircraft, this engineering marvel eventually had its wings clipped by rising fuel prices and maintenance costs. The Coronavirus pandemic has dealt a severe blow to the aviation industry which will reduce the lifespan of this mighty jet. The end is approaching rather quickly with multiple aircraft already having been sent to the scrapyard by several airlines. One wonders how such an aircraft took to the skies in the first place.

 

A ‘747’ for Europe  

Airbus A380 in flight

The 747 is the original jumbo jet from which the A380 was inspired by. For many people within Airbus, this aircraft would rule the skies for decades to come. But for a brief period, the unthinkable was considered where Boeing and Airbus would work together to produce a Super Jumbo. Both companies eventually joined forces in 1993 and shared a study of the potential market size of a large aircraft. They both ended up with different conclusions and so they never joined to work together. In the 1990s, Airbus had just 20% of the large aircraft market and looked at growing their market share and working with Boeing seemed like a good idea as it would not create competition. However, Boeing was never really ready to give up its highly successful 747 programmes and it was in 1996 that Airbus realised this and decided to go it alone. By 2000 the demand for the 747 was 1200 units for the following two decades and Airbus was ready to capture half of this market. Boeing instead saw it differently and decided to build variants of the 747 rather than build a whole new aircraft. Airbus pushed on with the project. Early signs were encouraging for Airbus with 50 initial orders from six airlines

Airbus wanted to take on Boeing at their own game by flying the same routes like the 747 such as London to Singapore. The goal for Airbus was to offer an aircraft that was 20% to 25% more economical. Boeing’s 747 had profited handsomely from the large hubs and a handful of carriers. Passenger numbers had risen sufficiently to create congestion at large airports like JFK in New York, Heathrow in London and  Narita in Tokyo, which all have been running at full capacity. Airbus believed it had the solution by building a larger aircraft thereby getting more people out of the airports with fewer flights. But change was in the air. The popular ‘Hub and spoke’ model was slowly being favoured by the ‘Point to point’ model. Airlines now chose smaller cheaper aircraft over larger more expensive ones to carry passengers on more financially viable routes like the secondary airports which were never congested in the first place. According to one aviation expert and historian, Graham Simons, the world had changed. Smaller more fuel-efficient planes were on the rise and the 747 and A380 would slowly drift away into the scrapyard. The airlines were now heading in a new direction, one with low priced flights to every destination an aircraft can take you point to point.

 

Giant of the Skies

Airbus A350 landing

The unveiling of the A380 took place in Toulouse in 2005 and flew for the first time on 27 April 2005. Chief engineer test pilot Robert Laftontan commented about how gently the plane landed even when it was 100-tons overweight. The aircraft quickly became favoured by pilots on how easy it was to fly and felt like a smaller lighter aircraft. Airbus explored various options in the design phase but eventually settled on two full-length double-decker aircraft which is essentially two widebody aircraft on top of each other. One of the concept designs had two widebody fuselages side by side and using existing components from an A340 Airbus passenger aircraft. There were several configurations and fuselage designs but Airbus, in the end, decided to follow one simple rule: to design the A380 inside an 80-metre box so that it’s compatible with airports. The 80-metre limit was set by airport authorities in the 1990s when it came to the 747 superjumbos. And the A380 is just short of it which thankfully allows it to operate using existing airport infrastructure although some airport gates needed upgrading.

At high speeds, the constrained wingspan creates more drag which in turn increases fuel consumption. More problems were to come for Airbus when the wings failed a load test and had to be reinforced adding extra weight. The four Rolls Royce engines were chosen to sit on these very large wings with Engine Alliance in the United States as a second option. The combined thrust output for these engines is 240 000 pounds providing a lift to its maximum take-off weight of 650 tonnes and within 15 minutes it takes to reach cruising altitude. The Airbus can fly from Dallas to Sydney non-stop, a range of over 15 000 kilometres. Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace engineer called the four-engine aircraft an anachronism in this day and age. At over $40 million per engine, this is a significant cost for the whole aircraft meaning that having four engines, raises the price. Unlike the more favourable option of a twin-engine aircraft, the A380 requires twice more the maintenance, tons more fuel and has a higher carbon emission. At the time Rolls Royce had produced a state of the art engines with the best fuel consumption and power to weight ratio, but in this high tech field of engine development, it took Boeing just a few years to surpass the technology with the Boeing 787. It was hard for Airbus with four winged engines to compete with the newer generation of long-haul more fuel-efficient, twin-engine low-cost aircraft.

 

Comfort

Close up of an Airbus A380 engine

The A380 gave Airbus a chance to showcase the latest technologies, airframe and avionics. But it was passenger comfort that was to receive top priority with a cabin designed to reduce passenger fatigue and increase the quality of their experience, especially on long haul flights. This was achieved with lower noise levels, higher cabin pressurisation and relaxing ambient lighting. Since then this has become standard on all new aircraft. Industry experts agreed that comfort leads the way and influenced the design direction of the aircraft from day one. A mock-up was even built to fly around the world to get feedback from all passengers on what they wanted. These insights were used and influenced the interior design to a great deal. Passengers were so impressed with the interior space and the fact they could stand up straight whilst at the window seat. On aircrafts such as the 737 or A320, you can’t stand up at the window seat because of the low overhead bin but in the A380 the walls are almost vertical. The interior space was set out to allow customisation for airlines to choose and even a shower option was added to the business deck. This was an idea that was well-received by passengers. Features were added like heated marble floors, mood lighting that changed as the aircraft’s environment changed and a bar at the back for the thirsty traveller.

There’s no denying that the aircraft offers genuine levels of comfort and it’s a firm favourite with passengers and crew. It’s quiet and pleasant, has a low cabin noise, sits nicely in the air with pressure and humidity levels not found on any other aircraft. However, storm clouds were brewing when the fuel price started to increase and new more fuel-efficient engines started to debut.

 

Delays and cancellations

A380 cockpit

Singapore Airlines was the first A380 customer on 25 October 2007 to receive their pride and joy, but by the time it was delivered it was late and already outdated. Aviation had shifted, drastically! Smaller more efficient aircraft designed for point to point travel emerged like Boeing’s 787 and Airbus A350 were piling up the orders in the hundreds. The writing was on the wall. The only hope that was left is that history reversed itself and went back to a bygone era when the Super Jumbo’s flew the sky, a return to the ‘hub and spoke’ model. For that, you’d have to go way back to the Pan-Am days. The A380 programme was hit by delays which caused some airlines to cancel their orders and opt for other options like the 787 and A350 even though it would be years before it was delivered. Airlines could already buy a long-range aircraft that was smaller and more fuel-efficient like the Boeing 777-300ER which was soon to become the most popular of the 777 variant. These aircraft allowed for larger margins of profit which pleased the airlines. The 777-300ER was a four-engine Boeing and Airbus killer.

 

No US buyers

A380 in hanger while getting built-up

Emirates Airlines have come to the rescue and kept Airbus afloat, but just temporarily with almost half of all A380’s made, been sold to the Dubai based airline. Who knows how much sooner the A380 would have been shut down if were not for Emirates Airlines ordering 36 A380s in 2018. So, when Airbus’s biggest customer, Emirates cut down its order from 53 to 14 aircraft, Airbus had no choice. Production had to stop. It all had to come to an end for Airbus’s $25 Billion investment that did not yield a profit. Airbus’s European clients had bought aircraft but not nearly enough as expected or hoped for but the real telling sign of success or failure was the US market – where not a single aircraft was sold. Airbus has in the past been very successful in the US with its easy to fly aircraft, so it wasn’t about being patriotic towards Boeing that prevented sales. American Airlines operates a large fleet of A319’s and A321’s. Jet blue’s fleet consists of 80% of Airbus’s and United has the fourth-largest fleet of A350’s. It just came down to the idea of four fuel-hungry engines attached to a very large expensive jet that didn’t fit in with current aviation trends. US airlines were also falling out of favour with their all American homegrown favourite, the 747.

 

Dark skies ahead

Airbus A380 at the passenger terminal

The A380 project turned out to be a $25 billion disaster and Airbus admitted to their mistake. Airbus was juts 10 years too late and was aimed at a niche market and despite its failure, the aircraft paved the way for many brand new technologies. With production now sure to stop in 2021, support for the existing aircraft will continue for as long as they fly which is expected to be around 2040. But its future could end sooner with the advent of Corona Virus making this aircraft most vulnerable. There is no secondary market to speak of with most airlines priding themselves on young fleets – so what could happen is that many 12-year-old jets will be retired and recycled in the soda cans in a very quick time. It was thought the fleet could linger on up until the early 2030s but now the timing could come sooner like the 2020s. Could the airline survive the pandemic because its large size could assist with social distancing within the aircraft, but that would mean dramatically reduced passenger numbers which would be extremely uneconomical to fly half empty. With low demand during this pandemic, it has become difficult to fill up these large aircraft. It is thought that for a while the A380’s capacity won’t be needed and quite a few are currently parked, that may just remain parked.

 

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