The largest passenger airplane the world has yet known is scheduled to be discontinued. On 14 February, 2019, Airbus announced that they will no longer be manufacturing the airborne behemoths. The love affair was over.
The A380 began its commercial service only fourteen years ago, following a long period of development beginning in 1988. It was meant to compete with Boeing’s 747, long-haul passenger jet. The eighteen-billion-Euro project resulted in the largest passenger plane ever to fly the skies. Since its inception, the plane has broken the mould for luxury and high-capacity passenger flights, leaving a trail of firsts and record-breaking stats in its wake.
The plane seats 525 passengers in a typical configuration, but is certified for up to 853. Its range (loaded) is just shy of 15,000 km, despite weighing it at an astounding 560,000kg – 598 tons. At 73m in total length, there are more than 310 miles of wiring in each plane, and the largest models have a wingspan of 80m (reduced from its planned 90m to conform to airport restrictions). With two decks for passengers, some models include bars and showers for first-class passengers, snack bars, private mini-cabins for two, and even a suite with a living room, bedroom, and personal butler.
There have been reports of even the ultra-rich using the suite on the long-haul commercial flight, while their private luxury jets meet them at their destination for shorter flights once there. Now that’s a pretty good indicator of a high-end product.
Not just for the billionaires though, the high capacity of the economy sections of the super-jumbo Airbus has meant tens of thousands of people riding the A380 routes each year.
But the official downward trend will soon begin, as industry-wide decisions are falling in favour of other products to fulfil the future needs of commercial fleets.
Despite the popularity of the planes among both passengers and pilots, and the justified hype surrounding the amazing perks and features of the A380, the bottom line turns out to be… the bottom line. Without profitability, the program can’t continue.
The massive outlay of cash spent on development of the world’s largest passenger plane was one factor leading to the unprofitability of the program. Airbus needed sales upwards of four hundred units to make back the development costs, and they missed the mark by almost fifty.
The reasons sales fell is a bit more complicated. Airlines operate in a world of tight margins, and near the top of their list is airplane efficiency and per-passenger running costs.
The decrease in efficiency caused by having to reduce the wingspan from the 90m as originally designed, to 80m was one problem. This exceeded the size restrictions of most major airports by ten full metres and, though some airports adapted to these new giants, most did not. That meant each flight was a little more expensive, and needed near-full passenger capacity to tick over into the profit column. With each flight flying at capacity, the projected numbers work quite well, but filling these massive aircraft for each scheduled flight has proven difficult at times, and the loss of per-passenger efficiency has shown over time.
A second major factor in this industry shift is the popularity of point-to-point, long-haul flying as opposed to the hub-and-spoke model. The point-to-point model means that super-jumbos are only in demand between the largest and most popular city-destinations. Too much of the market share is drained away to lower-volume flights that avoid the hubs altogether. Though existing A380s will still fly the major routes, the demand for more units has waned.
The final blow seems to have been the cancellation of future orders by one of their prime clients, Emirates Air, closely followed by similar announcement from Qantas. At a price tag of $445 million per unit (though often discounted), the cancellation of orders for over forty of the flying giants has proven too much for the program – though other types of aircraft are still being purchased from Airbus by both Emirates and Qantas.
What will replace it?
Smaller, more efficient aircraft seem to be taking back market share from the super-jumbos. Emirates, for example, softened their cancellation of the order for thirty-nine A380 units with a $21.4 billion deal that includes forty A330 and thirty A350 aircraft. Qantas made a similar change, though on a smaller scale.
These planes are easier to fill to capacity and their most efficient designs are not limited by airport restrictions, so profit margins tend to be better and more reliable. In an industry which is famous for tight margins as it is, this makes the smaller planes attractive alternatives.
When will the last one fly?
Most large aircraft have a lifespan of about fifty years, but as advances in efficiency and changing market pressures exert their influence, this can be significantly shortened. The A380 has been flying commercially for fourteen years, but was a long time in the making, so a combination of factors, both financial and technical, may mean a shorter-than-average run for these beloved giants. Still, it can be expected that airlines will stretch their investment dollars over as much time as possible, so if you dream of riding one of these iconic, super-jumbo models, you still have time to do it – but don’t put it off too long.
Airlines running A380s as part of their fleets include Air France, Asiana, British Airways, China Southern, Emirates, Etihad, Korean Air, Lufthansa, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways. With such a wide range of providers still to choose from, you can hop on a flight on an A380 from London to Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Singapore, Vancouver, Dubai, and a host of other great destinations.
And we recommend you do; it is an experience to remember.