I remember well going to Primary School back in the early 2000’s with my friends and discussing the upcoming A3XX project. We continually thought that such a massive double-deck plane to take on the 747 would never happen. But happen it did, and now the Airbus A380 has become the largest commercial airliner currently in use, $432 million of the latest in aeronautical innovation that has become the hallmark of so many major airlines. But could the A380 soon be finding itself a victim of its own success?
Development of the Airbus A380 goes back to the late 1980’s, when Airbus engineers led by Jean Roeder began a secret plan to create the ultimate high-capacity airliner to take on Boeing’s brand new 747-400 and the proposed McDonnell Douglas MD-12. After two years of tweaking, the plan was unveiled at the Farnborough Airshow in 1990, with the stated goal of 15% lower operating costs than the 747-400. Airbus organised four teams of designers, one from each of its partners (Aérospatiale, British Aerospace, Deutsche Aerospace AG, CASA) to propose new technologies for its future aircraft designs. The designs were presented in 1992 and the most competitive designs were used.
In January 1993, Boeing and several companies in the Airbus consortium started a joint feasibility study of a Very Large Commercial Transport (VLCT), aiming to form a partnership to share the limited market.This joint study was abandoned two years later, Boeing’s interest having declined because analysts thought that such a product was unlikely to cover the projected $15 billion development cost, instead focusing their efforts on the Boeing 777. Despite the fact that only two airlines had expressed public interest in purchasing such a plane, Airbus was already pursuing its own large plane project. Analysts suggested that Boeing would instead pursue stretching its 747 design, and that air travel was already moving away from the hub and spoke system that consolidated traffic into large planes, and toward more non-stop routes that could be served by smaller planes.
By 1994, the project had been dubbed the A3XX, and a variety of very unusual designs had been considered, including a dual-fuselage with the cross-section from an Airbus A340. Instead the consideration was to create a fully double-decked aircraft that would provide greater capacity than the 747. From 1997 to 2000, as the East Asian financial crisis darkened the market outlook, Airbus refined its design, targeting a 15–20% reduction in operating costs over the existing Boeing 747-400. Although early marketing of the huge cross-section touted the possibility of duty-free shops, restaurant-like dining, gyms, casinos & beauty parlours on board, the realities of airline economics have kept such dreams grounded.
On December 19th, 2000, the supervisory board of newly restructured Airbus voted to launch an €8.8-billion programme to build the A3XX, re-christened as the A380, with 50 firm orders from six launch customers. The A380 designation was a break from previous Airbus families, which had progressed sequentially from A300 to A340. It was chosen because the number 8 resembles the double-deck cross section, and is a lucky number in some Asian countries where the aircraft was being marketed. The aircraft configuration was finalised in early 2001, and manufacturing of the first A380 wing box component started on January 23rd, 2002. The development cost of the A380 had grown to €11-14 billion when the first aircraft was completed.
The overall specifications of the A380 are as follows. The aircraft is 238ft long and has a wingspan of 261ft. The general capacity is listed at a maximum of 868 passengers, and the overall weight with a full payload is 575,000kg. In order to help such a gigantic aircraft get off the ground, the aircraft is powered by four Rolls Royce Trent 970 engines producing 70,000lbf each. The aircraft is good for a range of 9,400 miles, making it capable of operating among the longest flights in the world and with double the capacity of the competing Boeing 747 or 777. Supporting the aircraft’s huge bulk on the ground is a 20 wheel configuration. In preparation for the Airbus A380’s launch, most larger international airports such as Los Angeles LAX and London Heathrow had to create special gates in order to accommodate such an enormous aircraft, including Jetways that could serve two decks and apron space wide enough for the wings.
However, many felt that Airbus had bitten off more than they could chew, especially when it came to production. Aside from a brand new facility having to be built at the Airbus factory in Toulouse, the creation of individual parts from across Airbus’ European empire meant that it would be a logistical nightmare. Structural sections of the aircraft are built in France, Germany, Spain and Great Britain, all of which would have to be shipped to Toulouse for final assembly. Though smaller parts such as engines could be transported by way of the specially built Airbus A300-600ST Beluga, larger pieces such as the fuselage sections built in North Germany and wings build in Wales had to be shipped by barge to Bordeaux and then transported by road to Toulouse through small villages with tight clearance.
Five testbed A380’s were unveiled throughout early 2005 and the first flight of the type took place on April 27th, with F-WWOW doing the honours. The avionics and flight controls of the A380 make it an incredibly easy aircraft to fly for its size, and it quickly became popular among test pilots for its ease of use. The aircraft was tested rigorously throughout 2005 and 2006, with it being the largest passenger aircraft in service the company couldn’t afford a single issue. The aircraft carried out numerous tours of global airports, making its first appearance in North America in February 2006.
Initial interest in the A380 was high, and a variety of types were considered, including the A380-800F, a cargo variant for airlines such as Fedex, UPS and Cargolux. Initially, orders included those from Virgin Atlantic, Singapore Airlines, Emirates, Qatar, Air France and Korean Air. However, delays with regard to wiring problems and customisation of the configuration management and change control meant that the A380’s delivery into service was delayed by over a year. Originally Emirates was meant to be the launch customer, but this distinction was finally given to Singapore Airlines, with its first aircraft entering service on October 15th, 2007, flying from Singapore to Sydney.
Immediately, the A380 captured the hearts and minds of those who flew aboard it, and allowed many airlines to fulfil their dreams of having super-luxury accommodation aboard their aircraft. A majority of A380 operators have put the upper-deck to use as a flying luxury hotel for plutocrats, with en-suite bedrooms and huge seats. While such luxuries have compromised the A380’s ability to carry up to 800 passengers, the revenue earned alone from the ticket prices on these super-luxury flying conditions is probably enough to cover them.
However, in spite of the A380’s success in terms of reliability, image and ease of use, orders were still very slow. Airbus reduced deliveries from their initial quota of 27 aircraft to just 12 in 2008, and 21 in 2009. This has been followed by a reduction to just 12 aircraft a year from 2018 onwards. The major issue regarding such an aircraft as the Airbus A380 is a mixture of its size and the fact that the competition from twin-jet aircraft has very much caught up with the jumbo-jets of today. In the 1970’s, the Boeing 747 had a monopoly on high-capacity aircraft as comparable airliners of the time had nowhere near enough capacity to compete. Today, the A380 has to contend with the likes of the Boeing 777 and 787, two types of aircraft which have the ability to carry a comparable number of passengers at half the cost and less size, allowing them more flexibility to operate to a wider range of airports. As such, it has been considered by Airbus, and indeed Boeing, to retire jumbo-jets such as the A380 and the 747 in light of reduced sales and loss of money. While the A380 remains somewhat profitable, the 747 is certainly showing signs that it may be retired from construction within the next few years as its sales continue to dwindle.
Aside from the fact that as of 2016 only 193 A380’s have been delivered in 9 years, the aircraft has brought up several issues regarding structural integrity. Qantas Flight 32 suffered a catastrophic engine failure on November 4th, 2010, thankfully not resulting in any injuries among the aircraft’s 469 occupants, but brought to light many issues regarding problems with engine casing and cracks discovered around the wing fittings. While so far the A380 hasn’t suffered any fatal accidents or incidents (and I pray such an occurrence never happens), it is quite worrying to think that an aircraft with a capacity
level of up to 800 passengers may one day suffer such an event as the 747 did in its early years.
Today, the Airbus A380 has become the centrepiece for many important airlines and flag carriers, but its success has been something of a damp squib, unlike the 747 which truly changed the face of aviation. The A380 has sadly been unveiled at the wrong time, the fact that it is highly uneconomical when compared to twin-jet aircraft of comparable size and capacity means that a large majority of airlines are reluctant to take them on. At they same time they are highly inflexible due to their size and requirements for take-off and landing, making them only reserved for a small number of international routes. An indication of the A380’s failure to garner major interest comes from the fact that derivative versions such as the A380-900 and A380-800F were cancelled when there was such high hopes that they’d succeed. If the A380 had been released ten years earlier in 1995 rather than 2005, there’s a clear chance that it could have been the next 747 and would have had a similar impact in the pre-9/11 market. Sadly, with competition from the Boeing 777 and 787, together with a stagnated aviation market and much greater consideration for economic aircraft, the A380 has sadly not made the spectacular difference Airbus was hoping for, and hasn’t even been sold to a US airline yet.
One hopes that the A380 may one day become the success story it was designed to be, but at present it appears to be a very slow burner.