Airbus A380

The massive Airbus A380 is one of the most recognisable aircraft in the sky with its double-deck passenger cabins. The search by Airbus for a challenger to the Boeing 747 started in the late 1980s, with the A3XX project appearing in 1994.

The manufacturer launched the A380 programme in December 2000 and the first flight took place on April 27, 2005. The first delivery to a customer was Singapore Airlines in October 2007. The maiden commercial flight, SQ380, was from Singapore to Sydney, Australia on October 25 that same month.

The aircraft is certified for up to 853 passengers, though typical airline configurations are around 500. A total of 251 aircraft were manufactured and delivered to airlines such as Air France, Asiana, British Airways, Etihad Airways, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways and Qantas, among others. Emirates is the largest customer of the jet, affectionately known as the Super Jumbo, having procured 123 examples. The final A380 handed over to Emirates was also the last example of the type to be delivered. Production of the huge aircraft ended in 2021.

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The Airbus A380’s imposing shape and size, double-deck layout and four large turbofan engines ensure it is the most distinctive commercial passenger airliner flying.

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 what had become a flagship project for Europe’s aerospace industry. The last examples of the super jumbo will leave the Toulouse final assembly line in 2021 after 13 years in production and 251 aircraft sold.

The production decision followed a rethink by Emirates over an A380 memorandum of understanding signed in 2018 and an agreement reached with the company over its remaining A380 deliveries.

In February 2019 the Gulf carrier decided to reduce its A380 orders from 162 to 123. Consequently, of its remaining 53 aircraft, Emirates will receive only 14 more up to the end of 2021. The lack of orders from other airlines meant Airbus could not sustain production beyond that point.

The A380 had for years been heavily reliant on Emirates’ repeat orders and it was clear the Dubai carrier would be decisive in the programme’s future. Airbus chief executive officer Tom Enders told a news conference in early 2019: “We need to be realistic about it. 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 .”

Of course, closing the production line does not mean the A380 programme ends; Airbus will continue to support the in-service fleet and Emirates has said A380s will remain in its fleet “well into the 2030s”.

Nonetheless, this is a watershed. Airbus long believed the A380 offered a solution for congested airports and rising air passenger numbers. In reality, demand for a high-capacity quadjet was dampened by efficient long-range twinjet widebodies such as Boeing 777s and 787s and Airbus’ own A350. Tellingly, as the axe fell on A380 production, Emirates also announced it had signed an agreement with Airbus to acquire 40 A330-900s and 30 A350-900s, with deliveries starting in 2021 and 2024 respectively.

Early in the A380 programme, there was hype about how the double-decker aircraft would restore glamour to air travel and, indeed, many operators introduced fancy onboard features for premium passengers such as bars, showers and suites. Travellers in the less plush economy class also highly rate the A380 for space and quietness.

However, operating economics matter above all else in the airline business and the A380 was simply out of step with the leaner twinjets. Enders reflected: “What we’re seeing here is the end of the large four-engine aircraft. There’s been speculation for years over whether we were ten years too early with the A380. I think it’s clear we were probably ten years too late or more.”

With the programme's end set, 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 5,145ft² (478m²) of usable 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 had spent years in development and suffered from service entry delays. Singapore Airlines (SIA) 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, 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 the less salubrious economy class, the space available enables airlines to provide 18in-wide (457mm) seats as standard.


Low sales

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), Air Accord (3), Kingdom Holding Company (1), Hong Kong Airlines (10) and Virgin Atlantic (6). Tellingly, some repeat purchases were also cancelled. Qantas dropped eight orders and Air France two.

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 the author: “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.”

The  final words of Enders' quote seem at best inappropriate and at worst foolish because it implies the analysis undertaken by Airbus in support of launching the A380 was a good drop of stuff. Potential customers, the market and good old-fashioned reality all indicated otherwise. Perhaps the hubris at Airbus discussed in the previous section, Birth of a Giant, remains?

Indeed, it might be said A380 sales were pretty much as envisaged. A much less reported prediction 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 VLAs that ended up being sold – the 251 A380s plus 47 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 while 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.

At the 2017 Paris Air Show, a new 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, Qantas announced it 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 introduced Cabin-Flex on the A380 in 2019.

The optimisation could not save it, however, and in the end, basic economics forced the company's hand.

By Mark Broadbent

Airbus A380 specifications
Wingspan 260ft 9in (79.75m
Length 238ft 6in (72.72m)
Height 79ft 4in (24.09m)
Wing area 9,100ft2 (845m2)
Max ramp weight 1,062,628lb (482,000kg) to 1,272,067lb (577,000kg)
Max take-off weight 1,058,259lb (480,000kg) to 1,267,658lb (575,000kg)
Max landing weight 850,984lb (386,000kg) to 870,826lb (395,000kg)
Max zero fuel weight 795,869lb (361,000kg) to 813,506lb (369,000kg)
Usable fuel 85,472 US gal (323,546 lit)
Passenger cabin volume (upper deck) 18,717ft3 (530m3)
Passenger cabin volume (main deck) 27,369ft3 (775m3)
Usable underfloor cargo volume 5,682ft3 (160.9m3)
Cockpit volume 424ft3 (12m3)
Seats Standard 555, but variable according to customer; maximum certified capacity 868
Cruise speed Mach 0.85
Ceiling 43,000ft
Range 8,478 nautical miles (15,700km)
Engines Four Rolls-Royce Trent 900s or Engine Alliance GP7200s each generating 70,000lb (311kN) of thrust