How the A380 superjumbo's dream fell apart

How the A380 superjumbo’s dream fell apart

(CNN) – It’s nothing like seeing an Airbus A380 for the first time. It is so large – the largest passenger plane ever built – that its wingspan is almost the length of a football field, and more than 800 people could fit together if all seats were economy class.

The trip is extremely convenient, plus when the flight can be 16 hours long and take you around the world. The cabin offers a lot of space and luxurious amenities, which makes it a favorite among passengers and crew.

However, airlines liked it much less: Airbus hoped to sell as many as 750, instead planning to shut down production in 2021 after just over 250 would disconnect from the Toulouse route in southern France. It has been in operation for only 13 years.

With a list price of about $ 450 million per aircraft, the A380 is a technological marvel, amassed by advanced engineering, but conceived through the intentions of a bygone era of aviation, which eventually cut its wings.

The service life of super-jumbos already in service can be further shortened by the detrimental effects of the coronavirus on the aviation industry. An airplane that was once considered the future of travel is seeing its previous approach faster and faster.

So how did this giant from heaven come to fly in the first place?

European 747

Airbus A380: Passengers love it. Airlines do not.

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty images

The A380 was created in response to the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747. But for a while, Airbus and Boeing briefly considered the unthinkable: working together to create a new superumbo.

In 1993, they joined forces to study the potential size of the market for a very large aircraft, but eventually came to different conclusions and the joint venture never materialized.

“In the 1990s, we had only a 20% share of the aircraft market and were not present in the large aircraft segment,” said Robert Lafontaine, a former chief engineer of the Airbus A380 project.

“We wanted to work with Boeing because we decided it was a good idea to have no competition in this segment. But over time, Airbus realized that Boeing was not ready to have a successor to the 747, so in 1996 the decision was made to work alone. . “

By 2000, Airbus had projected demand for 1,200 dembos over the next two decades – and planned to capture about half of that market. Boeing’s estimate was about a third of that, so it decided to invest in new variants of the existing 747, rather than make an entirely new aircraft.

Airbus pressed. The project, formerly known as the A3XX, was renamed the A380 and attracted an encouraging 50 initial orders from six airlines.

“Boeing was making a lot of money with the 747, and Airbus wanted to be able to fly the same routes as the 747 as London to Singapore, without any restrictions,” Lafontaine said. “The goal was to offer an aircraft that would be 20 to 25 percent more economical for airlines.”

In fact, the 747 thrived in an aviation world dominated by large hubs and a handful of carriers. The increase in passenger numbers has created congestion at major airports such as JFK in New York, Narita in Tokyo and Heathrow in London, which were already operating at full capacity.

Singapore Airlines took delivery of the first A380 in October 2007.

Singapore Airlines took delivery of the first A380 in October 2007.

Singapore Airlines via Getty Images

According to Airbus, the solution is a larger aircraft that can take more passengers from these airports without increasing the number of flights.

But that tide spun. The “hub and talk” model was about to disappear in favor of point-to-point travel. Instead of buying larger planes to carry more passengers, the airlines chose a different and more financially viable route: buying smaller planes and using them to connect to secondary airports that had never been congested.

“The world has changed,” said Graham Simons, an aviation historian and author of Airbus A380: A History.

“Industry, in terms of manufacturing, has changed to respond to what airlines want, and airlines have responded to what the industry supplies. The net result was that the 747 and A380 would decline in popularity, while smaller and larger fuel efficient aircraft would increase. “

A gentle giant

The spacious interior of the A380 means even more economical space.

The spacious interior of the A380 means even more economical space.

Mark Nolan / Getty images

The A380 was introduced in Toulouse in early 2005 and took off for the first time on April 27, 2005. Chief Engineer Robert Lafontaine was also a pilot test during this period.

“I first flew the plane about a month after the maiden flight and did a few tests. One of them was a 100-ton overweight landing, which didn’t feel like an overweight landing at all. It was so easy to fly, but not “I didn’t feel like a big plane, I felt like an A319 or a lighter plane,” he says.

The only passenger aircraft with a double-decker two-story road ever built, the A380 is essentially two wide-angle aircraft on top of each other, although Airbus is exploring several configurations at the design stage. One of them had two wide-angle fuselages next to each other, using components from the A340, Airbus’ existing four-engine passenger aircraft.

“We studied several configurations and arrangements of the fuselage, but in the end we followed a simple rule: to design the aircraft inside an 80-meter box for compatibility with the airport,” says Lafontaine.

This limit was set in the 1990s by the airport authorities when planning future aircraft larger than the Boeing 747. The wingspan of the A380 is only inches from it, which allows the aircraft to operate with the help of existing airport structures ( although in many cases airport gates upgrades are required to allow A380 boarding operations) and remain below the limit.

The four engines of the A380 deliver a combined thrust of 240,000 pounds.

The four engines of the A380 deliver a combined thrust of 240,000 pounds.

EMY GABALDA / AFP via Getty Images

However, the limited wingspan creates more traction at high speeds, increasing fuel consumption. Airbus also had to add last-minute reinforcements – and therefore extra weight – to the wings after failing to closely test the load in 2006.

The wings hold the distinctive four engines of the aircraft, manufactured by Rolls-Royce in the UK or the Engine Alliance in the United States. They provide a combined thrust of 240,000 pounds of thrust, capable of lifting the maximum take-off weight of the aircraft of 650 tons and reach a height of 15 minutes. They offer a range of nearly 15,000 kilometers, enough to fly from Dallas to Sydney non-stop.

“It’s just that the idea of ​​a four-engine large jet these days and age is obviously an anachronism.”

Aerospace consultant Richard Abulafia

As the engines represent a significant percentage of the total cost of the aircraft, the presence of four of them increases the price.

Compared to twin-engine aircraft, they also require twice as much maintenance, use more fuel and produce more carbon emissions.

Although the A380’s engines seemed to be state-of-the-art when they came out, they were surpassed in efficiency and technology only a few years later when the Boeing 787 was announced.

In the end, the configuration of the A380’s wing and its engines put it at a disadvantage compared to the newer generation of twin-engine aircraft.

Built for comfort

The Dubai-based Emirates is the A380's largest customer.

The Dubai-based Emirates is the A380’s largest customer.

Martin Rose / Getty images

The aircraft included a number of new technologies in the frame and avionics, but special attention was paid to the cabin to reduce passenger fatigue and improve the quality of life on board, through higher pressure levels, lower noise and relaxing ambient lighting. Since then, they have become standard for newer aircraft.

Lafontaine says comfort was one of the criteria that informed the design of the aircraft from day one. Airbus even built a mock-up of the cabin and sent it around the world to study what passengers want, using these insights to influence interior design.

“The thing that made me think was that on the main deck you could stand by a window seat,” says Simons. “I’m 5 feet 10 inches and if I get on a 737 or A320, I can’t stand up to the window seat because of the top bin. But on the A380, the cabin walls are almost vertical.”

The cabin is also very adaptable, and gorgeous options are available for airlines, such as showers on the business deck. “The idea of ​​an airplane shower is mind-boggling,” Simons added. “And they have heated marble floors and tuned lighting that changes in intensity based on what the light levels are. The Emirates put a bar down at the back with an onyx bar on top and a tread that they use on top of the bar when not in use. they use not just a short cloth, but goatskin. “

Nico Buchholz, who worked at Airbus during the development of the A380 and then spent 15 years as a fleet manager at Lufthansa, where he bought 14 A380s for the German carrier, agrees that the aircraft offers unbeatable levels of comfort.

“For passengers and cabin crew, this is a fantastic aircraft because it is quiet and pleasant, sits beautifully in the air, there is low noise in the cabin, and pressure and humidity levels have not been heard in previous aircraft,” he said.

“Economically, however, when fuel prices began to rise and more efficient engines arrived from 2005 onwards, it began to go in the wrong direction.”

Delays and cancellations

The A380 can be equipped with a shower for first-class passengers.

The A380 can be equipped with a shower for first-class passengers.

Martin Rose / Getty images

By the time the first A380 was delivered to its launch client, Singapore Airlines, on October 25, 2007, it was somehow lagging behind.

Commercial aviation is also displacing more efficient point-to-point aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus’ own A350, which have just been announced and are executing hundreds of orders.

According to Richard Abulafia, vice president of aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, the writing was on the wall.

The only argument you could make if you’re a pro-A380 at the time is that history will turn around and times will go back to a bygone era when you have big “hub and talk” carriers that run everything and run their national hubs like fortresses, “he says.” In short, you had to go back to Pan-Am days.

The project was also affected by delays, which led to the cancellation of orders from some airlines, and although years passed before the 787 and A350 went into service, airlines could now buy a long-haul aircraft that was smaller and smaller. fuel economy from A380.

The Boeing 777-300ER (meaning “extended range”), which quickly became the most successful 777 option, allowed airlines higher margins with the same range as the A380, albeit with less capacity.

“The 777-300ER started killing four-engine planes, whether it was a Boeing or an Airbus,” says Buchholz.

There are no buyers in the United States

Emirates has installed luxury upper decks on its A380.

Emirates has installed luxury upper decks on its A380.

Martin Rose / Getty images

The survival of the A380 is directly related to Emirates, which bought almost half of all A380s delivered so far and designed its entire image around the aircraft.

Production of the A380 could have stopped earlier if the Dubai-based airline had not ordered three dozen more A380s in 2018. But when even Emirates reduced its remaining orders from 53 to 14 in early 2019 – it chose to take the A350 instead – Airbus had no choice but to stop production because it was losing every plane.

Ultimately, the $ 25 billion investment in the project will not pay off.

Major European carriers bought the A380, but in modest quantities and most importantly, Airbus failed to sell any in the crucial US market.

This cannot be reduced to pro-Boeing bias, as other Airbus models are extremely successful in the United States.

“It was so easy to fly, it wasn’t like a big plane”

Chief Engineer, Robert Lafontaine

American Airlines, for example, operates the world’s largest fleet of both the A319 and the A321. JetBlue, the sixth largest carrier in the country, does not have a single Boeing aircraft, and nearly 80% of its aircraft are Airbus. United has the fourth largest order for the A350 of all airlines.

“It’s just that the idea of ​​a four-engine large jet in this day and age is obviously an anachronism,” says Abulafia.

American Airlines also fell in love with the beloved 747.

Singapore Airlines' A380 suites were equipped with double beds.

Singapore Airlines’ A380 suites were equipped with double beds.

TOH TING WEI / AFP via Getty Images

Delta was the last US carrier to make a 747 passenger flight in 2018. The latest version of the 747-8 – which is longer but no bigger than the A380 – has a future only as a cargo.

“The passenger version is already dead,” says Abulafia. “It may last a little longer as a cargo version, but given what’s happening in the cargo markets, I doubt it. It’s basically in the same boat as the A380, it’s just not a $ 25 billion project.”

However, there is one thing that can allow the 747-8 to surpass the A380: It is planned to become the next Air Force One.

Dark sky ahead

The Cologne-based aviation brand sells labels made from the fuselage of the first A380, which will retire

The Cologne-based aviation brand is selling labels made from the fuselage of the first A380 to retire.

Courtesy of Aviationtag

Airbus admitted its mistakes with the A380 project.

“There is speculation that we were 10 years too early; I think it is clear that we were 10 years too late,” former Airbus CEO Tom Enders said when he announced in 2019 that production of the aircraft would cease. in 2021. He stepped down from his role shortly thereafter.

Chief engineer Robert Lafontaine believes that the aircraft was aimed at a niche market, but does not regret the design of the aircraft, which he said has paved the way for many brand new technologies.

While production stops, maintenance of the existing fleet will continue as usual, and Airbus expects the A380 to be in the air in the 2040s.

But the future of the aircraft is also tied to how the aviation industry will recover from the global coronavirus pandemic, and the A380 could be hit hardest.

“One of the main problems is that there is no secondary market to talk about and many carriers, especially the Emirates, are proud of their young fleets – so you can see 12-year-old jets retire and turn into beer cans in record time. time, “says Abulafia.” We thought the fleet would last until the early 2030s, now it’s possible they may all be gone by the middle of the 2020s. “

Although the large size of the cabin would help with the social distancing measures introduced following the pandemic, it would be extremely uneconomical for airlines to fly the A380 half empty.

And with low demand ahead, it will be a challenge to fill large planes anyway.

“The A380’s capacity won’t really be needed for a while,” says Buchholz. “My feeling is that a lot of the A380s that are currently parked can stay parked.”

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