How do airlines use the A380? How has the aircraft evolved since its debut a decade ago? What is its future? Mark Broadbent looks at Europe’s super jumbo
COMMERCIAL AIRBUS A380
On a recent spring day in northern Britain, a couple on a train looked out of the window. An Emirates Airbus A380 came into view, approach lights glinting. The man, unprompted, suddenly said to his partner, “A380,” pointing to the airliner as it flew overhead on its approach into Manchester Airport.
The A380’s size, four engines and twin passenger decks obviously make it stand out, but this moment, witnessed by the author while preparing this article, showed how even after ten years’ service the A380 can still catch the public’s eye.
The A380 is the largest passenger airliner currently flying. The type undertakes around 300 flights every day, according to Airbus. Since its entry into service (EIS) in October 2007 with Singapore Airlines (SIA), the operational fleet has completed over 500,000 revenue flights and carried more than 190 million passengers.
Airbus delivered 226 A380s between EIS and May 2018. Thirteen airlines operate A380s (see table), with Emirates the lead operator. Stuart Rubin, Principal at industry consultancy ICF, told AIR International: “There is significant concentration with five major carriers. Emirates, which flies almost 50% of the in-service aircraft and holds 53% of the firm order backlog, along with the next four largest operators, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Lufthansa and British Airways, combined fly nearly 75% of the in-service fleet and hold nearly 60% of the firm order backlog’.
There will be two new operators in the next year. Hi Fly announced in April that from mid-2018 it would take on two ex-SIA A380s parked at Tarmac Aerosave at Lourdes in southwest France since their leases from Dr Peters Group ended last year.
In spring 2019, All Nippon Airways is due to receive the first of three A380s.
Fuselage sections for the initial jet entered the Toulouse Final Assembly Line in March 2018. The airline plans to put the aircraft on its Tokyo-Honolulu leisure route. All the aircraft will wear a distinctive livery called Flying Honu featuring a turtle character. In late April, ANA announced the jets would each wear an individual version of the livery: one blue (called Lani, named after the Hawaiian word for sky), one green (Kai, or ocean) and one orange (Ka La, or sunset).
Where do A380s fly?
According to Airbus, the super jumbo now operates on more than 200 routes to 60 destinations worldwide. The A380’s seating capacity obviously makes it ideal for serving airports with the largest passenger flows, so inevitably it mainly serves the links between large hubs.
”Since entry into service, the A380 has exhibited limited market penetration’. Stuart Rubin, ICF
The same airport names appear repeatedly looking through airlines’ route networks: the likes of Dubai, London Heathrow, Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Frankfurt, Munich, Paris CDG, Dallas-Fort Worth, New York JFK, Melbourne, Los Angeles, Miami and Shanghai. Emirates, which at the time of writing operates A380s to 40 destinations from Dubai, also uses the super jumbo to serve secondary airports such as Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham, Copenhagen, Nice and Vienna. These destinations have smaller passenger numbers than the biggest hubs, but still boast sizeable traffc figures; last year, for instance, Gatwick had 45 million passengers, Copenhagen 29 million and Manchester 27 million. Industry analyst John Strickland from JLS Consulting explained to AIR International how Emirates can use A380s like this: “Every time they add an A380 on a route to Dubai, that’s 500 seats feeding connections to places with another 500 seats. A larger aircraft feeding larger aircraft produces many more permutations of connections. It makes it easier for Emirates to fill up an A380 than it would another airline that didn’t have that powerful hub at the other end of the route’.
Planning the routes
What goes into working out where A380s fly? Network planning is intrinsic to successful airline operations; carriers must correctly match market characteristics and demand forecasts with the capabilities of their fleet to generate the lowest unit costs and maximise revenues.
Strickland, a former network planner, explained to AIR International: “It’s making the best use of your slots, looking at what type of demand you have – volume, price-driven, economy or premium – and the seasonality of markets. You look at what it costs to fly one aircraft, and how that works out on cost per seat and the number of seats for the market’.
Other considerations include competition, whether new traffc can be stimulated by opening a route and the characteristics of revenue cargo on a route. Strickland believes, “It’s an art, not a science’.
The A380’s ability to fly large numbers of passengers in a single movement is useful for airlines operating from slot-constrained hubs. For example, British Airways has since 2016 used A380s for two daily Los Angeles frequencies, which replaced the three Boeing 747-400 frequencies formerly operated on the route.
Moving to the A380 freed capacity at Heathrow for the carrier, as Strickland observed: “[BA] don’t lose anything in terms of numbers of seats, but they’ve been able to free up slots to do something else’.
Another vital part of network planning, Strickland says, is “a good understanding of market dynamics and moving aircraft around the network to get the best result”. In this respect, the A380 is a very useful tool: “You think, ‘I can’t do two or three [frequencies] a day on this route, but I can do one big aircraft, so I’ll put in one big dose of capacity.’”
One consequence of these networkplanning intricacies is A380s tend to move around networks, providing lift where it is needed. For example, for its summer 2018 schedule, Lufthansa moved five A380s to Munich to serve Los Angeles, Beijing and Houston; then, in the winter schedule from October, the carrier will take A380s off Frankfurt–Miami and instead use the slot to operate a daily A380 Frankfurt–Bangkok rotation, replacing an A340-600.
Another example: BA flies one A380 to Miami and two A380s to Johannesburg every day for the summer schedule. When the winter schedule starts this allocation will be reversed, with two A380s serving Miami and one A380 going to Johannesburg daily.
The A380 isn’t right everywhere though, even for routes with large passenger numbers it might seem well suited to such as Heathrow–New York JFK, on which 2.9 million passengers flew in 2017, according to Civil Aviation Authority figures. A characteristic of the Heathrow–JFK route is passengers’ preference for flights at difierent times through the day. For BA, an A380 would work against them, competing against the multiple frequencies off ered on the route by American Airlines, Delta and United.
The A380 is also less favourable for revenue cargo than other aircraft, despite its size. Its underfloor forward and aft cargo compartments provide 160.9m3 (5,682ft3) of revenue cargo capacity; by comparison a Boeing 777-300ER has 7,120ft3 (201.6m3) lower deck cargo capacity. Strickland says: “If you have a route where cargo provides a good input of total revenue, you might well say, ‘I’ll provide an aircraft with more belly hold space to meet that demand’,” rather than an A380.
The A380s in service today are evolved from the initial aircraft delivered a decade ago, thanks to several airframe and systems upgrades since EIS.
A wing twist of 1.5° was introduced to improve the wing’s profile during flight and reduce fuel burn. (The twist refers to the position of the wing tip relative to the wing root whilst in the manufacturing jig.) A Rolls-Royce Trent 900 Enhanced Performance package introduced elliptical leading edges for the compressor blades to improve effciency, while the Engine Alliance GP7200 benefited from improved engine control software that modifies the turbine case cooling to optimise blade tip clearance.
Third-generation aluminium-lithium composites introduced to the lower wing skin yielded a 740kg (1,631lb) weight saving, through what Airbus calls “re-optimised” wing covers, which have improved thickness and grow-out radii.
Increased design weights have boosted payload/range capability. Maximum take-off weight (MTOW) has increased by 6,000kg (13,227lb) and maximum zero fuel and maximum landing weights have increased by 3,000kg (6,613lb), thanks to structural reinforcements. Operators can choose from 13 difierent weight variants in all, ranging from 490,000 to 575,000kg (1,080,265 to 1,267,658lb).
There have been various systems improvements since EIS.
Aluminium rather than copper wiring has reduced by 40% the weight of the 310 miles (500km) of wiring on each A380.
An improved gust load alleviation feature on the angle-of-attack probes measures flow changes in gusts 656ft (200m) before they reach the wing. When the gust hits the wing, the aircraft’s ailerons automatically deflect upwards rapidly to decrease bending loads and optimise airflow.
Among flight deck innovations, an autopilot/flight director traffc collision and avoidance system (TCAS) mode combines the autopilot, flight director and TCAS to provide a vertical speed guidance to create an optimum avoidance manoeuvre from conflicting air traffc. The A380 also now has a TCAS Alert Prevention mode to reduce the number of TCAS Resolution Advisory warnings during a level-off manoeuvre, a Runway Overrun Protection System and Brake-to-Vacate, which regulates deceleration after touchdown to enable runway exit at an optimum speed.
There have been innovations to boost dispatch reliability. For instance, at EIS if the wingtip brakes (the system preventing a runaway of flaps and slats) failed, no dispatch was allowed until a test on the brakes was passed. A subsequent modification to the flight control computer now means three flights can be undertaken without performing the test, enabling airlines to utilise the aircraft before fixing the failure at base.
A380 seat plans
Air France: 516 seats (nine first-class open suites, 80 business, 38 premium economy, 389 economy)
All Nippon Airways: 520 seats (eight first-class, 56 business, 73 premium economy, 383 economy)*
Asiana: 495 seats (12 first-class closed suites, 60 business, 417 economy) British Airways: 469 seats (14 first-class open suites, 97 business class, 55 premium economy, 303 economy) China Southern: two layouts offering 471 (12 first-class closed, 60 business, 399 economy) or 409 (12 first-class closed, 86 business, 331 economy)
Emirates: three layouts offering 489 seats (14 first-class closed suites, 76 business, 399 economy), 517 seats (14 first, 76 business, 427 economy) and 615 seats (58 business, 557 economy)
Etihad Airways: 494 seats (9 first-class closed suites, 70 business, 415 economy) plus one Residence suite Korean Air Lines: two layouts offering 407 seats (12 first-class open suites, 94 business, 301 economy) or 399 seats (12 first-class, 94 business, 293 economy)
Lufthansa: 509 seats (8 first-class open suites, 78 business, 52 premium economy, 371 economy)
Malaysia Airlines: 494 seats (8 first-class open suites, 66 business, 420 economy)
Qantas Airways: 484 seats (14 first-class open suites, 64 business, 35 premium economy, 371 economy)
Qatar Airways: 514 seats (8 first-class open suites, 48 business, 461 economy)
Singapore Airlines: The previous three different layouts are to be consolidated on a 471-seat configuration (6 first-class closed suites, 78 business, 44 premium economy, 343 economy)
Thai Airways International: 507 seats (12 first class, 60 business, 435 economy) * All Nippon Airways is to introduce the A380 in spring 2019
Further structural and systems innovations are planned. In its in-house FAST publication, Airbus explains new design-to-cost applications are under investigation, such as laser shock peening, which “induces exceptionally deep residual compressive stresses” on metallic components to improve fatigue strength, and riblets, a new-generation coating that Airbus says creates a fuel burn saving when applied to wing and tailfin skins.
A New Air and Inertia Automatic Data Switching system is due to become available at the end of 2018. This will automatically display best air and inertial data and provide back-up airspeed and altitude data from independent engine probes. In 2019, it is proposed to add new aircraft tracking capabilities to comply with evolving regulations.
’Grand hotels in the sky’
During its time in service A380s have become a flagship for their operators, which is reflected by the aircraft being a centrepiece of marketing activity. On its website, for instance, BA gushes its A380s “are like grand hotels in the sky, luxurious, sophisticated and ultra-modern”.
The A380’s two passenger decks provide 550m2 (5,920ft2) of usable cabin floor space, which Lufthansa told AIR International means it has 50% more cabin volume than on other widebodies. Most A380s are configured with between 450 and 520 seats (see panel), although Korean Air Lines aircraft have as few as 399 seats and some Emirates jets have as many as 615 seats (one of three seat layouts used by the Gulf airline), currently the highest seat count on any airliner.
The A380’s cabin space gives plenty of creative scope and airlines have invested in lavish first and business class products to maximise yield (the revenue airlines earn per passenger per kilometre) from the lucrative premium travel market.
The most opulent offering is The Residence on Etihad’s aircraft, a three-room suite with a bedroom, en suite bathroom including a shower, living room and a personal butler. Emirates, Etihad, Qantas, SIA, Asiana and China Southern aircraft all feature fully enclosed first-class suites and Emirates’ jets have a shower/spa for first class passengers.
Other operators do not have enclosed suites, but they nevertheless do offer spacious facilities. For instance, BA’s 14 firstclass open suites offer 180° lie-flat recline.
Most A380s have an onboard bar and lounge area for first class/business passengers. Even in economy class, a 31–34in (787–863mm) seat pitch is typical.
Offering a quality product to meet expectations of flyers in the premium classes means the in-flight offering continually evolves. As the SIA spokesperson indicated to AIR International: “We do not rest on our laurels. We are committed to constantly innovating and improving our product and service offerings’.
To this end, in December 2017 SIA announced a new 471-seat four-class interior that increased the number of business class seats by 18 on previous SIA A380 seat layouts and introduced premium economy.
During the Aircraft Interiors Expo (AIX) in Hamburg in early April 2018, Emirates’ Sir Tim Clark was quoted as saying the Gulf airline is planning a “transformation of the cabin” for its A380. The updated interior, with new fully enclosed suites, bathrooms, spas and lighting, will be introduced in 2021, by which time it will be receiving the first jets from its latest follow-on order (for up to 36 aircraft) for more A380s.
Consumers’ expectations mean upgrades in the area of in-flight entertainment and connectivity (IFE&C) are also a key part of airlines managing their A380s in service. SIA, for example, has introduced a new KrisWorld interactive IFE&C system for its A380s, using Panasonic’s eX3 technology. SIA said: “The A380s are also equipped with SITAONAIR’s Global Xpress connectivity, which is a Ka-band broadband satellite network that delivers seamless, high-speed broadband connectivity around the world. The SIA A380 is the first in the world to be equipped with this latest system’.
“There’s logic in what Airbus is saying, that cities grow and airports become congested’. John Strickland, JLS Consulting
Optimising the cabin
With the industry trend for up-gauging (adding more seats) Airbus has moved to offer options, available either as line fit or retrofit, to increase capacity and improve the A380’s per-seat operating costs.
It has offered an 11-abreast main-deck economy class layout, with the extra capacity created by making the lower sidewall more vertical to give an extra 210mm (8.3in) width on each side of the cabin, and a nine-abreast premium economy configuration.
In 2017, Airbus unveiled further interior options to create up to 85 more seats and raise typical capacity from 490 to 575. These changes involved deactivating the upperdeck Door 3, relocating the forward stairs connecting the main and upper decks from Door 1 to Door 2, introducing a new aft galley stair module with a straight rather than spiral staircase, introducing a new lowerdeck crew and cabin rest area and removing sidewall stowage.
At AIX in Hamburg, Airbus announced Qantas as the launch customer for some of these options. From Q2 2019, the Australian carrier’s 12 aircraft will have their upperdeck Door 3s deactivated, allowing 11 more premium economy seats or seven more business class seats to be added to the aircraft. Airbus says this solution, which it calls Cabin-Flex, is “suitable for premium configuration with lower seat counts”. The updated Qantas A380 interior will also feature a new lounge area for business-class passengers.
The cabin layout options announced last year are part of a package of proposed improvements to the aircraft called A380plus. Other changes are winglets with a 3.5m (11ft 4in) uplet and a 1.2m (3ft 9in) downlet and as yet unspecified changes to the wing configuration to reduce drag, and a further MTOW increase to 578,000kg (1,274,271lb).
Airbus said all the enhancements would reduce the A380’s per-seat operating costs by 13% and improve fuel burn by 4%.
Emirates wants Airbus to go beyond incremental upgrades and develop an A380neo (new engine option) powered by new-generation turbofans. The A380plus conceivably acts as a developmental bridge to such a project, but Airbus executives insist there’s currently no business case for an A380neo, because new turbofans won’t become available until the mid-2020s.
Strickland says: “Airbus is in a Catch-22 situation, because if they’re not making money [from] a product they’re not planning to invest more, and if they don’t invest more maybe they inhibit future sales, because clients could say it’s not meeting the needs of airlines’.
In the opinion of Richard Aboulafia, Vice-President Analysis at the Teal Group consultancy: “Airbus is very sensible about the issue of A380 upgrades. Since there’s only one customer [ordering further aircraft] and since that one customer is taking six planes per year, there’s no way to pay for development costs. Cheap window dressing is one thing, but re-engining and other major improvements cost money that can’t be paid back. So, there may be cosmetic and marketing changes, but no neo’.
While a re-engine appears distant, Hi Fly taking on two A380s is an interesting development, as the Portuguese wet-leasing specialist will be the first company to take on second-hand super jumbos. Hi Fly is keeping these aircraft in the same 471-seat layout they had while with SIA (12 first-class, 60 business, 399 economy).
A380s and airports
The A380’s size means airport compatibility is a key issue: the jet is classified by the International Civil Aviation Organization as a Code F aircraft, meaning airports wanting to accept the aircraft require runways to be 60m (196ft 8in) wide with 7.5m (24ft 6in) shoulders, 25m-wide (82ft) taxiways and a minimum 57.5m (188ft 6in) clearance to ground objects. Airports must modify their infrastructure accordingly, widening and strengthening runways, taxiways and aprons, repositioning lighting and signage and building new and/or upgrading aircraft stands and air passenger boarding bridges (APBBs). Departure and arrivals halls, baggage carousels, customs and security facilities and retail and refreshment outlets also need to be able to handle the passenger numbers A380 flights generate.
Airbus says integrating A380s into an airport has a relatively short lead time. For example, the company says Birmingham Airport in the UK produced an operational plan for handling A380s, gained Civil Aviation Authority approval and upgraded a departure gate with a third APBB within a year before accepting its first A380 in March 2016.
Infrastructure changes have been most significant at the largest hubs handling multiple daily A380 flights. Most recently, Lufthansa adjusting its A380 operation, so five of its 14 A380s previously based at Frankfurt are now at Munich, led to modifications at the Bavarian hub.
A Lufthansa spokesperson explained to AIR International: “The infrastructure in Terminal 2 and the airport’s satellite building [are] adapted to allow passengers faster access to the security checkpoint.
The A380 can already be handled at an aircraft parking position at Terminal 2 and another parking position at the satellite building. Gates H47 and H48 in Terminal 2 and Gates L11 and L13 in the satellite will be available for this purpose. Two additional parking positions on the satellite building are currently being retrofitted with an additional third passenger boarding bridge for direct access to the upper deck’.
The passenger numbers A380 flights generate creates logistical and organisational requirements at airports, too. Munich Airport and Lufthansa have had to introduce additional lanes for the extra passengers going through Munich’s Terminal 2. Lufthansa said: “In order to reduce waiting times at the security checkpoint, four additional lanes will be available to passengers from autumn 2018. In the meantime, guests can use an additional control lock in the north of Terminal 2 at peak times. In addition, passengers will be able to line up more clearly. All passengers are guided to passenger control via the specified route.
Automatic boarding pass control will shorten the waiting time at the security checkpoints’.
The A380 requires specialist catering trucks with longer scissor lifts able to access the aircraft’s upper deck, 26ft (8.4m) up from the ramp, and specialist four-wheel drive ground vehicles to the aircraft on the apron. The A380’s size means the numbers of people responsible for turnaround, cleaning the seats and lavatories, replenishing and refuelling the aircraft and unloading and loading bags, is greater than any other commercial aircraft. Lufthansa told AIR International it takes a team of 70 to turn around an A380; they have two hours before the next departure.
However, Aboulafia is not optimistic about the A380’s second-hand prospects, saying: “I have doubts about anyone who needs leased capacity also needing 500 seats, despite the low cost of used planes. There isn’t exactly a boom market in leasing old 747s, no matter how cheap’.
Rubin is similarly pessimistic, saying the “very high level of concentration” of A380s with just a few operators “will likely limit opportunities in the secondary market”. A lessor, Amedeo, ordered 20 A380s in 2014, but it has yet to announce leases for these aircraft.
Airbus feels a future possible opportunity for second-hand A380 operations are Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage flights. In its FAST publication it says: “No aircraft makes more economic sense than the largest one …Not only does the A380 offer the right capacity, but it also has a 20–30% reduction in cost per seat versus the Boeing 747’.
In anticipation of any secondary market growth, Airbus has available a Flight Hour Services – Tailored Support (FHSTS) package comprising specific training for flight, engineering and cabin crews, an allocated field services rep, the A380 Health Monitoring Service to support operations, cabin reconfiguration and provision of services such as tool leasing, shipment consolidation and job card preparation. The FHSTS package is customisable, with Airbus providing a complete solution or supporting a secondhand operator’s existing maintenance, repair and overhaul supplier.
Operators are pleased with their A380s. Emirates President Sir Tim Clark has repeatedly praised the aircraft and has said many of Emirates customers “deliberately plan their travel so that they can fly on it”, while Qantas Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce said at the 2016 CAPA Australia Pacific Summit its fleet “works very well”.
Lufthansa told AIR International A380s will remain part of its fleet “on routes with slot restrictions and high demand”. The SIA spokesperson said: “As SIA’s philosophy is to match capacity with demand, the routes currently operated by the A380 have strong demand and a market for premium cabin offerings. The A380 is an important part of our fleet, and we expect that to be the case for many years to come’.
There remains a question mark over whether this enthusiasm will translate into repeat business. Despite Airbus’ annual 20- year global market forecast (GMF) predicting strong long-term demand for the very large aircraft (VLA) market segment where the A380 sits, the orders intake has been sluggish at best. Airbus had sold just 331 A380s up to May, and ICF’s Rubin reflected:
“Since entry into service, the A380 has exhibited modest growth and limited market penetration’.
The declining backlog (105 aircraft left by May) has led Airbus to cut annual production to eight jets for 2018, to be followed next year by a further rate cut to six per year. With the A380 central to Emirates’ business model of connecting the world through Dubai, further orders over the long term from this carrier seem likely. Beyond Emirates, Strickland believes “there is evidence there is a bit more demand; Willie Walsh has said IAG can envisage more for BA and even one or two for Aer Lingus or Iberia”, while Airbus believes airspace congestion and air traffic growth makes China a prime potential market long term.
By and large, however, fleet sizes with most operators don’t seem likely to increase, in the short term at least. One reason is airlines are satisfied with their existing fleet numbers. For example, noting how its route network centred on Singapore “requires a mix of short, medium and long-haul operations”, SIA told AIR International its current A380 fleet size is sufficient for its requirements.
More significantly, economical twin-jets such as Boeing 777s and Airbus’ own A350s serve to dampen demand. Boeing had sold 839 777-300ERs and 326 777Xs by early May and the A380 has been outsold in-house by another Airbus widebody, the A350, which has 832 orders, even though it’s been around for half as long as the A380.
Rubin said: “Although no other aircraft compares to the A380 in terms of payload [and] range capability, competition does exist at the lower end of the operating capability spectrum from current and future product offerings from Boeing and Airbus. Although these aircraft offer less capacity, they are twin-engine aircraft and offer improved fuel burn and maintenance costs’.
The popularity of twin-jets is reflected by several A380 operators (BA, SIA, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Etihad) all ordering A350s and/or 777Xs rather than further super jumbos.
Questions over the extent of the A380’s commercial appeal have also been raised because of several order cancellations.
Lessor ILFC, French carrier Air Austral, Hong Kong Airways and Air France have all cancelled aircraft and, earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic Airways’ long-dormant order for six, one of the very first orders announced when the A380 programme was formally launched in December 2000, was removed from Airbus’ official orders and deliveries data.
Ultimately, although an A380 provides an extremely valuable ability for network airlines to move large numbers of people, there are only, as Rubin put it, “a limited number of operators with the network and traffic to support an aircraft of the A380’s size …In light of the challenges to the A380 posed by the smaller widebody twins, significant concentration of aircraft at a few operators, the relatively small fleet, onerous reconfiguration charges, high trip costs and the lack of a secondary market, the market for the A380 will continue to be difficult’.
Might long-term air traffic growth stimulate more A380 sales? Airbus thinks so, saying air traffic doubles every 15 years and the future growth of what it calls aviation megacities, defined as hubs with more than 100,000 daily long-haul passengers, combined with capacity constraints of existing infrastructure will lead inevitably to a need for more VLAs in the long term. The current Airbus GMF predicts demand for 1,184 VLAs to 2036.
Strickland said: “There’s logic in what Airbus is saying, that cities grow and airports become congested. The questions are, how long is it going to take for that to happen at more airports and to what extent it will happen?”