How the dream of the super3boa A380 fell apart

(CNN) – Nothing like seeing the Airbus A380 for the first time. It is so large – the largest passenger aircraft ever built – that its wing span provides almost the length of a football field, and more than 800 people could fit into one if all seats were economy class.

The ride is extremely comfortable, plus when the flight can take as long as 16 hours and take you halfway around the world. The cabin offers plenty of space and rich content which makes it a favorite among passengers and crew.

The airlines, on the other hand, liked it more: Airbus hoped to sell as many as 750, instead, it planned to stop production in 2021, after just over 250 would give up the line in Toulouse, in the south of France. He has only been in the service for 13 years.

Priced at about $ 450 million per aircraft, the A380 is a technological marvel full of engineering thinking, but it was conceived by embracing signs from a bygone era of aviation, which ultimately fringed the wings.

The lifespan of superjumbos already in service could be further shortened by destroying the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation industry. The aircraft, once considered the future of travel, is experiencing its past approach more and more rapidly.

So how did this giant from the sky come to fly at all?

European 747

Airbus A380: Passengers love it. Airlines don’t.

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty images

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

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

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

“We wanted to work with Boeing because we thought it was a good idea to have no competition in that segment. But after a while, Airbus realized that Boeing wasn’t 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 jumbo jets over the next two decades – and planned to occupy about half of that market. Boeing’s estimate was about a third of that, which is why it decided to invest in new variants of the existing 747 instead of making a brand new aircraft.

Airbus pressed. The project, until then 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, like London to Singapore, without any restrictions,” Lafontan says. “The goal was to offer a plane that is 20 to 25 percent more economical for airlines.”

Namely, the 747 succeeded in an aviation world dominated by large hubs and a few carriers. The growing number of passengers has created congestion at major airports such as JFK in New York, Narita in Tokyo and Heathrow in London, which are already running 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

The solution, Airbus argued, was a larger air force that could pull more passengers out of those airports without increasing the number of flights.

But that tide turned. The hub and speak model was about to disappear in favor of a point-to-point trip. 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 secondary airports, for which they were never congested.

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

“The industry, in terms of production, has changed to respond to what airlines wanted, and airlines have responded to what the industry supplies. The net result has been that the 747 and A380 will decline in popularity, while smaller and more fuels will efficient planes will be flown. “

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A gentle giant

The spacious interior of the A380 means even more economy.

The spacious interior of the A380 means even more economy.

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 Lafontan was also a pilot pilot at the time.

“I first flew an airplane about a month after the girl’s flight and did a few tests. One of them was a 100-ton overweight landing that didn’t feel like an overweight landing at all. It was so easy to fly, it wasn’t” I don’t feel like of a large aircraft, it felt similar to an A319 or a lighter aircraft, ”he says.

The only dual-deck passenger aircraft ever built, the A380 are basically two wide-sea aircraft one above the other, although Airbus has explored several configurations at the design stage. One of them had two wide logs next to each other, using components from the A340, Airbus ’existing four-engine passenger plane.

“We explored several fuselage configurations and mechanisms, but in the end we followed a simple rule: design the plane inside an 80-foot box, for compatibility with the airport,” Lafontan says.

This restriction was set by the airport in the 1990s, when they planned future aircraft larger than the Boeing 747. The wingspan of the A380 is only a few inches from it, allowing the aircraft to use existing airport structures (although in many cases airport gates need upgrades to allow boarding in A380) and remain under restriction.

The four A380 engines deliver a thrust of £ 240,000.

The four A380 engines deliver a thrust of £ 240,000.

EMY GABALDA / AFP via Getty Images

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

The wings carry four distinctive aircraft engines, manufactured by Rolls-Royce in the UK or the Engine Alliance in the United States. They provide a combined thrust of £ 240,000, which can raise the aircraft’s maximum take-off weight of 650 tonnes and reach altitude in 15 minutes. They offer a range of almost 15,000 kilometers, enough for a non-stop flight from Dallas to Sydney.

“It’s just that the idea of ​​four-engine jet propulsion today and old age is obviously an anachronism.”

Space Adviser Richard Aboulafia

Because engines represent a significant percentage of the aircraft’s total cost, four of them increase cost.

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

Although the A380 engines looked state-of-the-art when released, they surpassed them in efficiency and technology only a few years later, when the Boeing 787 was announced.

Finally, the A380’s wing configuration and its engines put it at a disadvantage compared to the newer generation of long-lasting two-cylinder aircraft.

Built for comfort

Dubai Dubai based in Dubai is the largest customer of the A380.

Dubai Dubai based in Dubai is the largest customer of the A380.

Martin Rose / Getty Images

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

Lafontan says comfort was one of the criteria they informed about the design of the plane from day one. Airbus even built a cabin cabin and sent it around the world to examine what passengers want using these insights to influence interior design.

“What struck me was that on the main deck you can get up by the window seat,” Simons says. “I’m 5 feet and 10 inches, and if I step on a 737 or A320 I can’t stand up next to the window seat, because of the compartment. But on the A380, the cabin walls are almost vertical.”

The cabin is also very customizable, and lavish options are available to airlines, such as showers on the business deck. “The idea of ​​taking a shower on an airplane is just shocking,” Simons adds. “And they have heated marble floors and mood lighting that changes in intensity depending on what light levels are outside. Emirates has put a bar down the back with onyx bars and a protector they use on top of the bar when not in use is not just a rag but also goat skin. “

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

“For passengers and cabin crew, the aircraft is fantastic because it’s quiet and comfortable, sits nicely in the air, has low cabin noise, and pressure and humidity levels aren’t famous in previous aircraft,” he says.

“However, economically, when the price of fuel started to rise and more efficient engines arrived in 2005, it went in the wrong direction.”

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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 customer, Singapore Airlines, on October 25, 2007, it was already well behind the times.

Commercial aviation has changed and more efficient aircraft designed for point-to-point travel, such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, have just been announced and issued hundreds of orders.

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

The only argument you could give if you were a pro-A380 at the time was that history would turn around and that times would go back to the past, when you had great bearers of “speech and speakers” who ruled everything and managed their national centers like fortresses, ”he says. “In short, you had to go back to Pan-Am for days.”

The project was also hit by delays, leading some airlines to cancel orders, and although it will be years before the 787 and A350 enter service, airlines could already buy a long-range aircraft that is smaller and more fuel-efficient than the A380 .

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

“The 777-300ER began destroying four-engine aircraft, whether it was a Boeing or an Airbus,” Buchholz says.

No American customers

Emirates installed luxury upper decks on its A380.

Emirates installed luxury upper decks on its A380.

Martin Rose / Getty Images

The survival of the A380 is directly tied to Emirates which bought almost half of all the A380s delivered and designed the whole picture around the aircraft.

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

In the end, investing $ 25 million in that project will not pay off.

Major European carriers have bought the A380, but in modest quantities, and most importantly, Airbus has failed to sell any in a key U.S. market.

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

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

“Just the idea of ​​four-engine jet propulsion today and age is obviously an anachronism,” says Aboulafia.

American airlines also fell in love with the beloved 747.

The apartments on the a380s of Singapore Airlines were equipped with double beds.

The apartments on the a380s of Singapore Airlines were equipped with double beds.

TOH TING WEI / AFP via Getty Images

Delta was the last American carrier to operate 747 passenger flights in 2018. The latest variant of the aircraft, the 747-8 – which is longer, but not larger, than the A380 – has a future only as a cargo ship.

“The passenger version is dead now,” says Aboulafia. “It could last a little longer as a cargo version, but given what’s going on in the cargo markets, I doubt it. It’s basically in the same boat as the A380, only it’s not a $ 25 billion project.”

But there is one thing that could allow the 747-8 to surpass the A380: it should become the next Air Force One.

Dark skies ahead

The Cologne-based aircraft mark sells markings made from the fuselage of the first A380 to retire

The Cologne-based aircraft mark sells markings made from the fuselage of the first A380 to retire.

Kind airline tag

Airbus admitted mistakes in the A380 project.

“It has been speculated that we were 10 years premature; I think it is clear that we are 10 years late,” former Airbus CEO Tom Enders said when he announced in 2019 that aircraft production would stop in 2021. down from his role shortly thereafter.

Chief engineer Robert Lafontan believes the plane targeted a niche market, but he doesn’t regret the aircraft’s design, which he says has paved the way for many completely new technologies.

While production will cease, support for the existing fleet will continue as usual, and Airbus expects the A380 to be in the air well until the 2040s.

But the future of the plane 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 that can be talked about and a lot of carriers, especially Emirates, are proud of their young fleet – so in record time you could see 12-year-olds retiring and turning into cans of beer. , ”says Aboulafia. “We thought the fleet would last until the early 2030s, but now it’s possible that everyone will disappear by the mid or late 2020s.”

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

And with low demand ahead, it will be challenging to charge large planes anyway.

“The A380’s capacity, for a while, won’t actually be needed,” Buchholz says. “I feel like quite a lot of the A380, which is currently parked, could stay parked.”

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