COMMERCIAL AIRBUS A380
Airbus will produce the A380 for only a couple more years. Mark Broadbent reports on the super jumbo
The Airbus A380’s imposing shape and size, double-deck layout and four large turbofan engines ensure it is a highly distinctive commercial passenger airliner.
As eye-catching as it is, years of no orders meant Airbus bowed to the inevitable on February 14, 2019, announcing it would stop making its flagship product – and with it a flagship project for Europe’s aerospace industry – in 2021.
The latest updated orders and deliveries figures from Airbus, accounting for cancellations, showed it sold 290 examples of the aircraft in 18 years.
Airbus will produce just 17 more A380s, of which 14 will go to Emirates, the airline that operates more than any other operator by some margin, and whose decision to reduce its order for the type and instead order 40 Airbus A330-900neo and 30 Airbus A350-900 aircraft sounded the death knell for the super jumbo.
The decision to stop building A380s does not, of course, mean the aircraft will disappear from the skies any time soon. Several airlines flying the type intend to operate it for many years to come, and Airbus and its suppliers will therefore continue to support the inservice fleet; but with the type only set to be produced for a couple more years, the A380’s epitaph is written: a great engineering achievement undone by commercial reality.
Luxury and passenger popularity
Designed for operations on high-density trunk routes between major hubs, the A380 was launched in December 2000 with the fanfare that it represented the future of commercial air transport.
Airbus felt a high-capacity aircraft to lift more passengers in one go to make efficient use of slots at constrained hub airports was the best way to handle the predicted growth in air travel.
The manufacturer also believed the super jumbo’s size, giving 478m2 (5,145ft2) of useable cabin floor space across the two decks, presented an opportunity for network airlines to redefine the flying experience and to attract more revenue by offering luxuries in the sky. Early hype around the aircraft at its A3XX concept stage in the mid-1990s even saw Airbus put out a TV ad promising “wonders” aboard the new jet.
Some operators did indeed bring out lavish features for their premium-class cabins when they introduced the A380 a decade later, after the aircraft spent years in development and suffered from service entry delays. (Singapore Airlines was the first to put the type into service, in October 2007.) Most notably, Etihad Airways A380s are configured with a three-room VIP suite called The Residence, complete with the services of a butler. Most A380s don’t have quite such ostentatious features, but they still have high-end first and business class cabins. First class on Emirates, Etihad, Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Qantas A380s have fully enclosed suites. There are bathrooms and showers on Emirates and Etihad jets and lounge and bar areas on most operators’ aircraft.
Even in less-salubrious economy class, the space available enables airlines to provide 18in-wide (457mm) seats as standard. Emirates, Lufthansa and SIA have all said the A380’s space and comfort have specifically encouraged some travellers to book flights with them.
The A380’s popularity with passengers was stronger than that with airlines, however. Sales limped along for years. Emirates was the only customer to place repeat orders and there were many cancellations, including from lessor Amedeo (20 aircraft), Air Accord (three), Kingdom Holding Company (one), Hong Kong Airlines (ten) and Virgin Atlantic (six).
”If you have a product that nobody wants anymore or that you can sell only below production cost, you have to stop it, as painful as that is.” Tom Enders, Airbus
No A380s were sold to airlines in the United States, Africa and Latin America. There was marginal interest from the Asia-Pacific region despite air travel’s growth there. China Southern Airlines is the sole operator in China and All Nippon Airways (ANA), Asiana, Qantas, SIA and Thai Airways are the only other customers in the region.
Tellingly, some repeat purchases were cancelled. Qantas dropped eight orders, Air France two and even Emirates backed away from taking more, the Gulf carrier in February 2019 cancelling 39 of its remaining 53 orders for the type as part of the deal for the A350s and A330s, a decision that ultimately led directly to Airbus’ decision to stop production.
The lack of A380 sales over the years makes the Global Market Forecast (GMF) put out by Airbus back in the year 2000, which predicted demand for more than 1,200 very large aircraft (VLA, the A380’s size category) over 20 years, look very flawed. Richard Aboulafia, Vice-President Analysis at the Teal Group consultancy, told AIR International: “I’d like to think the A380 will be remembered with one simple phrase: ‘We’ve given the word folly a bad name.’”
Speaking a few months before his retirement in April 2019, Airbus’ former Chief Executive Officer Tom Enders defended the company’s decisions. He said: “We prepared very, very thoroughly. Little did we know in the year 2000 when we launched the A380 how the world would look in 2019. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, you guys should have known that. Why didn’t you do that?’ We didn’t stumble into [launching the A380] …it was based on careful analysis.”
Indeed, it might be said A380 sales were pretty much as envisaged. A much less reported detail in Airbus’ year 2000 GMF is an estimate for 360 VLA sales over the first decade of the 20-year timespan in the forecast. The number of VLA that ended up being sold – the 290 A380s plus 51 examples of the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, the A380’s head-to-head competitor in the segment – shows the GMF wasn’t too far off if certain parameters are used, although Airbus was of course still way out in the overall prediction for 1,200 VLAs over 20 years.
At one point there were plans for a freighter and a stretched version, and for several years Emirates urged Airbus to pursue an A380neo (new engine option) with newer and more fuel-efficient engines. The business cases for all these variants didn’t stack up, Airbus instead trying to drum up business by enhancing the current aircraft’s performance.
A 1.5o wing twist (which refers to the relative position of the wing tip to root whilst in the manufacturing jig) was introduced to optimise the wing’s profile and reduce fuel burn. Structural reinforcements to the centre wing box, belly fairing and fuselage enabled Airbus to offer a range of weight variants, giving operators options on payload and range performance. Maximum take-off weights (MTOW) ranged from the standard 560,000kg (1,234,558lb), down to 490,000kg (1,080,265lb) and up to 575,000kg (1,267,658lb).
At the last Paris Air Show in 2017, a further package of proposed enhancements called the A380plus was unveiled: winglets to cut fuel burn, further enhanced payload, extended maintenance intervals and ‘Cabin Enablers’ to optimise the internal configuration to boost seat capacity and improve per-seat operating costs.
In 2018, it was announced Qantas would retrofit its 12 A380s with a configuration called Cabin-Flex. This deactivates the upper-deck Door-3, creating space for up to 11 more premium economy seats or seven business class seats. Qantas will introduce Cabin-Flex on its A380s this year.
Despite the optimisation, Enders conceded: “We couldn’t find customers or not enough customers. After everything we tried on the sales front [and] our engineers with new proposals the response from the market was, to put it mildly, very weak and we had no other choice to deal with it in an economic way.”
Impact of the big twins
While the decision to axe the super jumbo wasn’t so surprising given the struggle for orders, why was there such limited interest in the A380?
After all, large network airlines need big aircraft for high-capacity hauling. The A380 is ideal for using on services with large passenger flows such as the trunk routes between the largest hubs like Heathrow, Dubai, New York JFK, Los Angeles, Frankfurt and Singapore.
The A380 also gives carriers a handy tool in network planning by giving an airline an option to put in capacity where and when it is required. For example, last year British Airways added A380s on the routes from Heathrow to Boston, Chicago and Washington, DC. April 2019 saw Emirates start flying A380s to Glasgow for the first time since it started serving the Scottish airport in 2004, and in the same month Etihad used an A380 to add capacity to its Abu Dhabi-Manchester route normally served by A330s or Boeing 777s.
No, the decisive reason in the A380’s demise as a current-production aircraft is a fundamental change in the long-haul commercial aircraft game: the emergence over the last 15 years or so of a new generation of far more efficient twin-jets.
These aircraft, often called the ‘big twins’, are the Boeing 777-300ER (introduced to service in 2004), the A350-1000 (which entered service last year) and the forthcoming 777X (due to enter service in 2020).
Plainly, twin-engine aircraft will offer a lower operating cost than quad-jets because they have fewer engines, especially as the big twins have economic powerplants: the General Electric GE90-115B on the 777-300ER, the Rolls-Royce Trent XWB-97 on the A350-1000 and the GE9X on the 777X.
The 777-300ER has a 775,000lb (351,534kg) MTOW, can carry 365 passengers threeclass and has 7,370 nautical miles (13,649km) range. The A350-1000 offers a 316,000kg (696,000lb) MTOW, can seat 366 passengers three-class and has 8,400 nautical miles (15,557km) range. The forthcoming 777-9 will have a 775,000lb (351,534kg) MTOW, seat 349 three-class (or up to 414 two-class) and have 7,525 nautical miles (13,940km) range.
Its longer-range stablemate, the 777-8, will have a 775,000lb (351,534kg) MTOW, seat 365 three-class and have 8,600 nautical miles (16,090km) range. By comparison, the A380 has its 575,000kg (1,267,658lb) MTOW, ability to seat over 800 people and 8,207 nautical miles (15,199km) range.
The A380 clearly offers superior MTOW capability and range from the twins (although the A350-1000 and 777-8 will be able to fly further), but operators have chosen not to configure their super jumbos with lots of seats. Most A380s typically have between 405 and 500 seats; only some Emirates aircraft with 615 seats go anywhere near the A380’s full potential capacity.
Furthermore, the big twins offer more underfloor cargo capacity than the super jumbo and therefore better revenue cargo opportunities. The A380 can carry 38 LD3 containers, but the 777-300ER and A350-1000 can carry 44 and the forthcoming 777-9 will carry 48.
The A380’s utility is in providing capacity for network airlines on trunk routes between hub airports. Here British Airways’ G-XLEG (msn 161) departs Heathrow. Richard Vandervoord
Put this revenue-generating capability together with the twin-engine economics and their comparable passenger, payload and range capabilities to the super jumbo – not quite as much, but still respectable – and it can be seen why A380 sales struggled. Simply, the big twins can do pretty much what the A380 does, but more efficiently.
The result is the big twins have eaten into the VLA territory once occupied by the A380 (and the 747). Boeing’s prediction that air travel growth would largely be achieved by more point-topoint flights bypassing the large hubs thanks to the efficiency of the twin-jets has won out, and as unfortunate as it is to see the assembly line close for such a distinctive aeroplane after a relatively short time, the end of A380 production was somewhat inevitable. The A350-1000 is now Airbus’ future long-haul, high-capacity flagship.
Enders reflected: “If you have a product that nobody wants anymore or that you can sell only below production cost, you have to stop it, as painful as that is.”
In a further sign of how out of step are large quad-jets, some operators are already phasing-out A380s, or plan to do so.
SIA at one point operated 24 A380s but has already reduced its fleet to 19, returning five jets to their lessors. Air France’s current ten-jet fleet will be cut to six by 2020 as leases on four examples expire and the jets return to lessors.
Lufthansa’s current fleet of 14 will reduce to eight in a few years, after Airbus agreed to buy back six aircraft from the German carrier in 2022 and 2023. The airline’s decision was announced as part of its recent contract for 20 A350-900s, a deal which itself emphasises the preference for twin-jets.
A Lufthansa Group statement said: “Lufthansa continuously monitors the profitability of its worldwide route network. The group is reducing the size of its A380 fleet for economic reasons. The structure of the network and the long-haul fleet, fundamentally optimised according to strategic aspects, will give the company more flexibility and at the same time increase its efficiency and competitiveness.”
While Air France and Lufthansa will retain small A380 fleets, and other airlines like Emirates and British Airways look set to continue flying A380s into the 2030s, Qatar Airways is planning to withdraw the type entirely from 2024, just ten years after taking it on, as new 777Xs arrive. Once again, proof the twins are winning out.
Meanwhile, there’s uncertainty over Malaysia Airlines’ fleet of six. At one point the carrier said it would phase-out the aircraft altogether, then it said it plans to use them in a new unit called Amal for Umrah and Hajj pilgrimage flights from southeast Asia to Jeddah and Madinah.
The drawdown of some A380 fleets and no new jets joining the in-service population after production ends, means the size of the active operational A380 fleet will likely peak in the early 2020s.
All this turns the focus on the A380’s fortunes to a different area: the secondary market. Initial signs of a market for used super jumbos are not promising.
Of the five ex-SIA aircraft returned to lessors, two are being dismantled for spares: 9V-SKA (msn 3), the first operational A380 in October 2007, and 9V-SKB (msn 5). Two others, 9V-SKD (msn 8) and 9V-SKE (msn 10), are in storage.
Into service in Japan
All Nippon Airways is to become the 15th airline to operate the A380. It will start flying the type from Tokyo-Narita to Honolulu on May 24. The carrier will receive three examples, each wearing a customised example of a distinctive design called ‘Flying Honu’ that depicts the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle, also known as the Honu. The ‘Flying Honu’ livery on the first aircraft, JA381A (msn 262), is blue, with the second jet, JA382A (msn 263), wearing green and the third example, JA383A (msn 266), set for an orange version. ANA’s A380s will be operated exclusively between Tokyo-Narita and Honolulu. The aircraft will seat 520 passengers (eight first-class suites, 56 business class, 73 premium economy seats, 383 economy seats). ANA say the trio will double the number of seats on the Tokyo-Honolulu route by 2020, another example of the A380’s utility in providing capacity to operators on high-density routes from hub airports.
”Even going from one operator to another, the differentiation in product and buyer furnished equipment is vast.” David Archer, IBA
Only one of the five had found a new home at the time of writing. The A380 formerly registered 9V-SKC (msn 6), returned by SIA to Doric Asset Finance at the end of 2017, is now with the Portuguese operator Hi Fly.
Reregistered 9H-MIP and repainted in a ‘Save the Coral Reefs’ livery, this aircraft is available for ad hoc charters and on a wetlease basis (aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance, or ACMI) to operators looking for capacity.
Last year, 9H-MIP was wet-leased by Norwegian for a couple of weeks during the peak summer season and operated on the low-cost carrier’s (LCC) London Gatwick-New York JFK route, while in April 2019 Air Senegal hired the aircraft for its Paris CDGDakar route.
Speaking during a press conference at last year’s Farnborough Airshow, Hi Fly President and Chief Executive Officer Paulo Mirpuri said the A380 “has a bright future” on the ACMI market. He said: “We have many carriers lining up to sign for availability, some of them to supplement their existing A380 fleets. Others may not operate the A380 but [they] want to try the A380 on their core routes and peak seasons.”
In February 2019, Hi Fly said 9H-MIP had been contracted by an operator for the European summer 2019 schedule, but the customer’s identity was undisclosed.
According to the industry analysts IBA, “a significant number of A380 leases are set to expire between 2023 and 2029”, which means more A380s could follow 9H-MIP into the secondary market. Doric’s Managing Director Sibylle Pähler, speaking at last year’s Farnborough, said: “There is a big portfolio of A380s, which we will further remarket.”
However, David Archer, a Senior Analyst at industry consultancy IBA, says the decision to end A380 production means the value of in-service examples over the long term is “uncertain”.
In a report, Archer said: “An aspect to consider in any remarketing situation is the high cost of transition that would be necessary in order to place it into service with an alternative carrier. Even going from one full-service operator to another, the differentiation in product and buyer furnished equipment offered is vast.”
This issue was highlighted recently. Executives at British Airways and its parent company IAG have for several years said they would potentially be interested in secondhand A380s, but in an April 2019 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, BA’s Chief Executive Officer Alex Cruz noted the high refurbishment cost.
Cruz reportedly said the cost of reconfiguring a used A380 cabin to BA’s specifications could be between $30 million and $50 million per aircraft. He was quoted as saying: “To put that into a lease rate, all of a sudden it takes the aircraft completely out of the market. Imagine that we find a suitable used, relatively new A380 whose owners don’t want any more – think Malaysian, think Emirates, think Lufthansa. Imagine they give it to us at a really reasonable price. Everything breaks down the moment you start thinking about the inside of the aircraft.”
Earlier this year BA announced an agreement with Boeing to buy 777-9s (18 aircraft initially, rising to 42 if all options are exercised). The new Triple Sevens will arrive from 2022 and will replace both BA’s older 777s and the carrier’s remaining 747-400s. Cruz told the RAeS lecture the cost of reconfiguring second-hand A380s “did not even come close” to the price of the new 777-9s.
The cost of refitting with new cabins set against the conversion and operating costs of legacy twin-jets, raises a question mark over whether there will be much demand for used A380s from LCCs active in the long-haul arena, or looking to move into it (all LCCs using widebody equipment for long-haul use twin-jets). The last operator in this market to fly quads, Oasis Hong Kong, which flew 747-400s in the 2000s, only operated for a few years.
Ultimately, the A380’s demise underlines how the future for long-haul air travel lies with the twin-jets. The Teal Group’s Aboulafia predicts: “The VLA market will continue to shrink, both in total size and an average size of aircraft, for years to come.” He believes the 777-9 and A350-1000 will dominate, adding: “Airbus may stimulate the market with a growth version of the A350-1000, but that won’t arrive for another six years at least.” It seems the A380 is set to become evermore firmly entrenched as a highly niche aircraft, with only a relatively small number of examples used by certain operators for specific applications. AI