Evolving technology and terrible timing stopped the Airbus A380 from ever really taking off.
The Airbus A380 is the world’s biggest passenger jet plane – and the plane many might imagine when thinking of splurging on a first-class seat, getting a free business class flight with their company or even relaxing more than in many other planes in economy – the double-decker plane offers more comfort and stability than its rivals.
Sometimes this goes to the extreme. Private flat-bed suites, an up-in-the-air lounge and cocktail bar, personal mini-bar at each seat – Emirates even built shower spas on board of its fleet of the double-decker planes. “We’ve developed the most passenger preferred aircraft in the world,” Airbus head of business analysis and market forecast Bob Lange says.
So why has Airbus decided to kill it?
The main reason the company will halt production of A380 after 12 years, from 2021, is the low number of planes sold. “In the end, you have to face facts, and we could see that we were building A380s faster than people were ordering them,” Lange says. Emirates is the only airline to significantly invest in the plane, making up more than half of the 300-odd orders for the superjumbo jet since its launch in 2007. In total, the airline has 110 A380s in service, and 13 more on order.
But even the Dubai-based airline decided to cut its final order by 39 planes, from 162 to 123 aircraft, on Valentine’s Day this year – a move that effectively signalled the end for the world’s biggest aircraft as Airbus then announced it would stop making the planes. “The greatest success of the A380 has been its symbiotic [12 year-long] relationship with Emirates,” says Lange.
But it also played a role in its downfall. “Emirates has been more successful with the aircraft than anyone else, but ironically, because of that success, other airlines had a hard time finding markets with enough volume to compete,” Lange says. As it announced its decision to stop buying the superjumbo jet, in June, Emirates also said it would purchase 40 smaller planes from Airbus – the A330-900 and 30 A350-900 aircraft. The deliveries should start from early 2021.
Apart from Emirates, a number of other airlines, including Lufthansa and Air France – airlines of Germany and France, the main manufacturers of the Airbus A380 – have also decided to stop buying the planes. Lange says that if an airline can fill an A380, the plane will generate $150m (£124m) of revenue per year. But the challenge is filling all those seats. The two 49.9 metre decks of an A380 can, at their maximum capacity, contain 868 people.
Lufthansa sold six A380s back to Airbus earlier this year, saying that they were unprofitable. Qantas cancelled its last A380 order in February, just like Emirates, keeping only 12 jumbo jets. Qatar Airlines, which has ten A380s in its fleet, has announced it will switch to Boeing 777Xs from 2024. So what went wrong?
The A380’s capacity was supposed to be its biggest advantage. “Most of the world’s major airlines told us they needed a larger aircraft to cope with traffic growth and congestion,” says Lange. Bigger planes meant fewer terminal gates would be needed to accommodate more people.
Plus, more seats meant more passengers, which meant lower fares. Everybody prefers flying direct, but passengers’ biggest factor of choice is the ticket price. So even though the superjumbo jets – with their whopping 80-metre wingspans – could only travel between big city hub airports, passengers were willing to deal with a stopover to pay a little less.
And once a plane ages, the cabin should be upgraded. The more seats there are to upgrade, the more costly it gets. That was one of the reasons Air France, the first European airline to fly the jet, decided to ditch A380 on August 5. The estimated cost of upgrading economy and business classes, at over $45 million (£37m), was just too much compared to investing into newer aircraft instead. That was just one of the reasons the French airline decided to retire all of its ten A380s by 2022 and instead replace them with 60 smaller Airbus A220-300s, with 149 passenger capacity.
Then there is the external design. A380 sports four engines, and one of the consequences of its launch was more investment in aircraft engines, significantly pushing the limits of how powerful an engine can be. Technology quickly evolved and now a new generation of super-efficient, twin-engine planes, such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s own A350, offer an even lower price point. That’s where airlines are investing their money, says Andrew Smith, director of Deloitte’s global transport practice.
“Given that fuel is the biggest operating cost for an airline, anything airlines can do to lock in lower fuel and maintenance costs is likely to be highly attractive,” he says. “In many cases, airlines have opted to base their fleet renewal plans around these twin-engine variants, in some cases even bring forward the planned retirement dates of quad-engined aircraft as a consequence.” So while the four-engine A380 still provided an unmatched passenger experience, that wasn’t enough to keep orders flying in.
While a little embarrassing and very expensive, the early shuttering of the A380 project hasn’t left Airbus in disarray. Despite the closure, and accompanying double-digit-billion-dollar loss, Airbus more than doubled its profits in the first half of this year, compared to the same period in 2018. And the technology developed for the A380 hasn’t been lost, having already been put to use in smaller Airbus planes. “We put so much innovation into that aircraft,” says Lange. “There are far more than 380 patents on the A380.”
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