How did the A380 superjumbo dream break?

(CNN) – Nothing like seeing an Airbus A380 for the first time. So big – the largest passenger airplane ever built – its wingspan runs almost the length of a football field, and if all the seats were economy class, more than 800 people could fit in one.

The journey is extremely comfortable, a flight can be as long as 16 hours and takes you halfway around the world. The cabin offers ample space and rich facilities, making it a favorite among passengers and crew.

However, airlines liked it less: Airbus hoped to sell as much as 750, instead it is planned to stop production in 2021 after the overthrow of more than 250 lines in Toulouse, south of France. It has been serving only for 13 years.

With a list price of about $ 450 million per plane, the A380 is a technological marvel full of forward-thinking engineering, but was designed with tips from an ancient aviation era that ultimately broke its wings.

The lifetime of the superjumbos already in service can be shortened by the devastating effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the aviation industry. An airplane, once considered the future of travel, sees its past approach faster.

So how did this sky giant start flying?

European 747

Airbus A380: Passengers love it. Airlines don't know.

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

Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images

The A380 was created as an answer to the original jumbo jet Boeing 747. But Airbus and Boeing have thought of the unthinkable for a while: working together to create a new superjumbo.

In 1993 they joined forces to study the potential market size for a very large aircraft, but eventually they had different results and the joint venture never took place.

“We received only 20% of the aircraft market in the 1990s and we were not in the large aircraft segment,” says Robert Lafontan, a former engineer of the A380 project on Airbus.

“We wanted to work with Boeing because we thought it was a good idea not to compete in that segment. But Airbus soon realized that Boeing wasn’t ready to be the successor of 747, so the decision was made in 1996 to work alone.”

By 2000, Airbus predicted the demand for 1,200 jumbo jets over the next two decades and was planning to take over half of this market. It was one-third of Boeing’s estimate, so he decided to invest in new variants of the current 747, rather than building a completely new plane.

Airbus raided. The project, known as the A3XX up to that time, was renamed A380 and received 50 encouraging start orders from six airlines.

“Boeing was making a lot of money with the 747, and Airbus wanted to fly the same routes from London to Singapore, like 747, without any restrictions,” Lafontan says. “The goal was to offer a 20 to 25% more economical plane for airlines.”

In fact, the 747 evolved in an aviation world dominated by large centers and a handful of carriers. The growing number of passengers already operates at full capacity in major airports such as JFK in New York, Narita in Tokyo and Heathrow in London.

Singapore Airlines received the first A380 in October A3.

Singapore Airlines received the first A380 in October A3.

Singapore Airlines with Getty Images

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

But this tide was turning. The “hub and connected” model was about to disappear in favor of “point-to-point” travel. Instead of buying bigger planes to carry more passengers, airlines chose a different and financially more viable route: buying smaller planes and using them to connect secondary airports that never get stuck to start.

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

“The industry has changed in terms of manufacturing to react to what airline companies want, and airlines have reacted to what the industry supplies. The net result would be the efficient planes, where the 747 and A380 fell in popularity.”

A gentle giant

The spacious interior of the A380 means more seats in the economy.

The spacious interior of the A380 means more seats in the economy.

Mark Nolan / Getty Images

The A380 opened in Toulouse in early 2005 and first flew on April 27, 2005. Chief engineer Robert Lafontan also served as a test pilot during this period.

“About a month after the first flight, I flew the plane and did a few tests. One of them was a 100-ton overweight landing, it didn’t feel like an overweight land at all. It was so easy to fly, I don’t feel like a large airplane, it looked like an A319 or lighter plane. “says.

Although the Airbus has discovered various configurations during the design phase, the A380, the only full-length double-decker passenger aircraft ever built, is actually two wide fuselage planes in a row. In one of them, there were two wide-body fuses next to each other, using the A340 components of Airbus’s existing four-engine passenger aircraft.

“We explored various configurations and hull arrangements, but eventually we followed a simple rule: design the aircraft in an 80-meter box for airport compatibility,” says Lafontan.

This limit was set by airport officials in the 1990s when planning future aircraft larger than the Boeing 747. The A380’s wingspan is just under inches, which allows the aircraft to operate using existing airport structures (although in most cases airport gates are required) A380 upgrades to allow boarding operations and stay below the border.

The A380's four engines provide a total of 240,000 pounds of thrust.

The A380’s four engines provide a total of 240,000 pounds of thrust.

EMY GABALDA / AFP via Getty Images

However, the restricted wingspan creates more friction at high speeds, increasing fuel consumption. Airbus had to add last-minute supplements – and therefore extra weight to the wings after a load test failed in 2006.

The wings feature four distinctive engines of the aircraft produced by the Rolls-Royce in the UK or the Motor Alliance in the United States. They provide 240,000 pounds of thrust that can lift the aircraft’s maximum take-off weight of 650 tons and reach altitude in 15 minutes. They offer a range of about 15,000 kilometers, from Dallas to Sydney, to fly without interruption.

“The idea of ​​a large four-engine jet just today and age is clearly anachronism.”

Space advisor Richard Aboulafia

Owning four raises the price tag, since the engines represent a significant percentage of the total cost of the aircraft.

Compared to a dual engine aircraft, it requires twice as much maintenance, uses more fuel and generates more carbon emissions.

Although the A380 engines seemed to be state-of-the-art when they were launched, efficiency and technology were exceeded when the Boeing 787 was announced a few years later.

Ultimately, the A380’s wing configuration and engines posed a disadvantage compared to the new generation of long-distance dual-engine aircraft.

Designed for comfort

Dubai-based Emirates has become the biggest customer of the A380.

Dubai-based Emirates has become the biggest customer of the A380.

Martin Rose / Getty Images

The aircraft included a number of new technologies in the fuselage and avionics, but special attention was given to the cabin to reduce passenger fatigue and improve the quality of life on board through a higher pressure level, lower noise, and relaxing ambient lighting. These have since become standard on new planes.

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Lafontan said that comfort is one of the criteria that inform the design of the aircraft from the first day. Even Airbus built a cabin model and sent this information to the world to investigate what passengers want, using this information to influence the design of the interior.

“What caught me was that you could stand next to a window seat on the main deck,” says Simons. “I’m 5 feet 10 inches, and if I go into the 737 or A320, I can’t stand the window seat because of the roof seat. But in the A380, the cabin walls are almost vertical.”

The cabin is also highly customizable and luxury options are available for airlines such as showers on the job deck. “The idea of ​​showering on an airplane is just mind-blowing,” Simons said. “And there are heated marble floors and mood lighting that changes in intensity depending on what the light levels are outside. Emirates put a bar on the back with the onyx bar top, and the protector they use on the bar top when not in use is not just a little bit of fabric, but goatskin.”

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

“It’s a great aircraft for passengers and cabin crew, because it is quiet and pleasant, sits well in the air, the cabin noise is low, and pressure and humidity levels are not heard in previous planes,” he says.

“But when the price of fuel began to rise economically and more efficient engines came from 2005, it started to move 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

When the first A380 was delivered to its launch customer, Singapore Airlines, on October 25, 2007, it lagged behind.

Commercial aviation was changing, and more efficient aircraft designed for point-to-point travel, such as Boeing 787 and Airbus’s own A350, were newly announced and commanded hundreds of orders.

According to Richard Aboulafia, vice president of aviation and space consulting firm Teal Group, the post was on the wall.

“If you were a pro-A380 then, the only argument you can make is that history will reverse itself, and times will return to a past era when you have big ‘hubs and spoke’ carriers that govern everything and manage their national centers.” “In short, you had to go back to Pan-Am days.”

The project was also affected by delays that led some airlines to cancel orders, and despite the years since the 787 and A350 came into service, airlines could already buy a smaller and fuel-efficient long-range aircraft A380.

Boeing 777-300ER (which means “Extended Range”), the most successful 777 variant, quickly allowed higher margins with the same A380 range, albeit with a smaller capacity.

Buchholz, “The 777-300ER started the killing of a four-engine airplane, whether it was Boeing or Airbus.” Says.

No U.S. buyers

Emirates fitted luxury upper deck rods on the A380s.

Emirates fitted luxury upper deck rods on the A380s.

Martin Rose / Getty Images

The A380’s survival is directly linked to Emirates, which has bought almost half of all A380s ever delivered and designed the entire look around the aircraft.

If the Dubai-based airline did not order three dozen A380s in 2018, the production of the A380 could stop earlier. But even when Emirates reduced its orders from the beginning of 2019 to 53 to 14 – instead chose to take the A350s – Airbus had no choice but to stop production because there was a loss on every plane.

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Finally, planemaker’s $ 25 billion investment in the project will not work.

The main European carriers bought the A380, but in modest quantities and, most importantly, Airbus could not sell a single one in the key American market.

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

“It was very easy to fly, it didn’t feel like a big airplane”

Chief engineer, Robert Lafontan

For example, American Airlines operates the world’s largest fleet of both A319 and A321. JetBlue, the country’s sixth largest ship, does not have a single Boeing plane, and about 80% of its planes are Airbus. United has the fourth largest A350 order from all airlines.

“Only in this day and age, the idea of ​​a large four-engine jet is clearly anachronism,” says Aboulafia.

US airlines fell in love with the beloved 747.

Double beds were fitted to the suites in Singapore Airlines' A380s.

Double beds were fitted to the suites in Singapore Airlines’ A380s.

TOH TING WEI / AFP via Getty Images

Delta was the last American carrier to operate 747 airliners in 2018. The 747-8, which is taller than the newest variant of the plane, the A37, but not the larger overall, will only come as a cargo ship.

“The passenger version is dead,” says Aboulafia. “It may stay a little longer as a cargo version, but given what’s happening in the cargo markets, I doubt it. It wasn’t just a $ 25 billion project on the same boat as the A380.”

However, there is one thing that could allow the 747-8 to last longer than the A380: it is planned to be the next Air Force One.

Dark sky ahead

Cologne-based Aviationtag sells labels made from the first A380 body to retire

Cologne-based Aviationtag sells labels made from the first A380 body to retire.

Courtesy Aviation Label

Airbus has accepted its mistakes with the A380 project.

Former Airbus CEO Tom Enders said he announced that aircraft production in 2019 will stop in 2021: “There is speculation that we are 10 years too early; I think we are 10 years too late.” Shortly thereafter he lost his role.

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

While production will stop, current fleet support will continue as usual, and Airbus expects the A380s to be in the air until the 2040s.

However, the future of the aircraft also depends on how the aviation industry can recover from the global coronavirus pandemic, and the A380 can be hit hardest.

“A major problem is that there is no secondary market to talk to, and Emirates is particularly proud of young fleets – so you can see that 12-year-old jets have turned into retirement and beer cans in record time,” says Aboulafia. “We thought the fleet would continue until the early 2030s, now they may have all gone from the mid 2020s onwards.”

Although the large size of the cabin helps with social distance measures initiated after the pandemic, it will not be extremely economical for airlines to fly A380s half empty.

With low demand ahead, it will still be difficult to fill large aircraft.

“The A380 capacity will not really be needed for a while,” says Buchholz. “A few of the currently parked A380 can remain parked.”

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