Airbus To Halt Production Of The A380; Goodbye to an Engineering Triumph

Eleven years ago, the Airbus A380 entered commercial service with Singapore Airlines. In the time since then it has become the queen of the skies. It’s a double-decker airliner, capable of flying 550 passengers eight thousand nautical miles. Some configurations of the A380 included private suites. Some had a shower. This is the epitome of luxury, a dream of flying with long-stemmed glasses, a movie, and a pleasant dream in mid-air.

Now, after the cancellation of A380 orders by Emirates, Airbus has announced it will end production of this massive, massive plane. No, it’s not the last flight of the Concorde, but it is the beginning of the end of an era. The biggest and most impressive planes just aren’t economical; it’s possible to fly three 787s across the globe for a single flight of an A380. The skies won’t fall silent, but soon the A380 will be no more.

The First Double-Decker (Air)bus?

While the A380 gets credit for being a massive, mindbendingly-large flying chunk of aluminum, the public clearly knows it for being the biggest, double-decker jet. If you fly the right airline and pay a fortune, you can get a private cabin and take a shower. You may have seen television commercials touting this level of pampering, but historically planes were even more luxurious.

Although it never made it off the drawing board, the McDonnell Douglas MD-12 would have looked extremely similar to the A380, and would beat the A380 into the air by a decade. The MD-12 would be longer, but have a shorter wingspan. The range of the MD-12 would be about 800 nautical miles (nmi) less than the A380, but the MD-12 did have one advantage over the A380: it would be able to fit into any airport that could service a Boeing 747. This wasn’t true for the A380 — because of the A380s enormous wingspan, it could only fly to destinations that had upgraded gates. This is one small, but significant, reason why the A380 wasn’t adopted by more operators.

Other passenger jet planes have used two decks. The 747 and its graceful hump immediately comes to mind, but there are more: the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar had the option for a lounge in the cargo compartment, accessible from the main deck through an elevator. It is truly a shame a panoramic window in an airliner is a very, very difficult engineering problem to solve. Other jet aircraft also have some living area tucked into spaces away from the masses. The 777 can have crew rest quarters in a small ‘upper deck’. Most widebody airliners have some provisions for a crew rest area in either the lower deck or tucked above the cabin.

The Breguet Deux Ponts

Before the age of jetliners, a double deck airplane was almost the norm. The Boeing 314 Clipper, the plane that accidentally circumnavigated the globe had two decks. The Dornier Do X wasn’t so much an airplane, but a flying ship with two decks. The Breguet Deux-Ponts had two decks, but it was designed by the French (and it looks like it). The Boeing 377 Stratocruiser included a lower deck lounge, but it competed against the massively successful Lockheed Super Constellation and Boeing only sold 56 Stratocruisers. The Stratocruiser still lives on, though: the Super Guppy, the strange, bulbous ancestor of Airbus’ Beluga, is still carrying cargo around the United States.

Double-decker airliners are nothing new, but the A380 was a sea change. This was the first successful jet-powered airliner with two full decks. And now production will end in 2020 with a little more than 200 aircraft delivered. In comparison, since 1970, Boeing has shipped more than 1500 747s.

A Future for the A380?

When orders for a passenger jet fall off, there’s usually a market to pick up the slack: freight. Indeed, there was a freighter version of the A380 designed, but it was never built. The eight or so freighter orders were converted to passenger versions, and to date there is no cargo airline using the A380.

But this isn’t true of all planes. The MD-11 was a somewhat successful commercial airliner, but you won’t find any carrying passengers today. They’re all carrying boxes now, mostly with FedEx. Even the venerable Boeing 747 has found an exceptional life carrying cargo. After planes are put out to pasture near Pima, cargo companies will snatch them up, convert them to cargo specs, and keep flying them. The economics of this are mostly due to the less stringent requirements for inspection on cargo aircraft versus passenger aircraft.

However, it’s doubtful the A380 will ever be used for cargo. Last year, Singapore Airlines retired the first A380s they received. This isn’t uncommon, and with costs of additional inspections and the economics of the planes themselves, airliners are regularly retired. It was a possibility, and even expected by enthusiasts, that these retired Singapore Airlines planes would be bought and converted to a freighter version. This did not happen. The first two retired A380s were broken up for parts. Scrapped, basically, albeit 270 tons of it.

As the years go on, we’ll be seeing more of these planes head to the boneyard. While the A380 might have been popular with passengers and the public, it was simply uneconomical. Newer planes, like Boeings 787 and the new Airbus A350, still carry a lot of passengers and are vastly more efficient. It’s a business failure, not an engineering failure, which is a shame: the A380 is an engineering triumph, and it will be sad to see them rot in the desert.

50 thoughts on “Airbus To Halt Production Of The A380; Goodbye to an Engineering Triumph

  1. One reason why it is unlikely that the A380 will see much service as a cargo jet is because there are only about 60 airports world wide that can handle the behemoth. In contrast, the 747 can fly to around 250 airports.

    Getting the cargo to where it’s got to go is a business of time. If your local airports are too far away from the places where the cargo has to get to, the economics of using a large plane are diminished.

    1. Only 250 airports for the 747? Heck, we’ve got 4* in Wichita, KS. I mean we have a lot of aircraft stuff around here, but it’s hard to believe that there are only 250 that can operate 747s in the world especially considering some of the tiny islands they fly to.

      * https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2P6LV-DKMrc and takeoff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lOvB8ZleHCk

      (That ATC recording is hilarious, and gets funnier the longer you listen. Beech is longer than where they landed (at Jabara). So instead of saying 3, I’m calling it 4. ;) 2 are *regular* landing locations for 747s)

      1. Hey! Someone from my town on the internet!
        I still remember the event that the Jabara landing / takeoff was (for the rest of the world, the Jabara airstrip is tiny (6,101 feet / 1.8 Km / 1.1 miles)).

        The “four” that can land 747’s are: (longest length listed)
        Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (max length 10301 feet / 1.95 miles / 3.1 Km)
        Beechcraft’s Airstrip- Walter Beech bought a square mile and put an airstrip in it diagonally– (8,000 feet / 1.42 miles // 2.44 Km)
        McConnell Air Force Base (Two 7,500 foot / 1.42 miles / 2.86 Km airstrips) (better suited to it than Jabara is)
        Jabara Airport* (6,101 feet / 1.8 Km / 1.1 miles)

        There’s also several other little baby airfields around, but none that could handle a 747.

        I’ve worked for Textron Aviation (they bought Cessna and Hawker Beechcraft) for a while, and have walked on or flown on / off of all of the above airstrips. Beechcraft’s is the most interesting- the airstrip has a tunnel / bridge that it runs on top of, which allows traffic through to the other side of town.

        *For the 747 that landed at Jabara, they had to fly in a crack team to get it out of there, and the weather was just right.. I don’t think that anyone wants to try that again.

        Additionally, Jabara’s 747 wasn’t able to park in the hangar.

    1. The aesthetics of aircraft is highly dependent on the country it was produced. Or rather, the team that designed it. but anyway…. This also only really works pre-Cold War, or pre-jet age, or pre-globalization, so grain of salt.

      German aerospace has a proclivity towards way too many small windows, and stuff that is streamlined, but looks like it isn’t. Look at the Stuka and He 111. British aircraft are ‘stocky’, look at the Manchester and Lancaster; the fuselages seem more square then they should be. Lockheed has weird, pointy noses, look at the PV-1/PV-2 and Constellation. Boeing, on the other hand has a strange art-deco style on it; the cockpit windows for the B247 look identical to the B17, then you take the B17, put an art deco nose on it and you get the 307. There are certain design queues that come from different design houses. I’d describe this as not wanting to re-engineer what already works, or changing up their factory too much, but you could interpret this as a corporate / nationalistic zeitgeist of design.

      But France? Triangular windows. Notice the ‘lowercase T’ tail, too. That’s odd as well. That’s what you’re getting there. French aircraft designers were moonlighting illustrating Tintin comics. Or maybe that was their main gig. French aircraft look weird. And then you got the Citroen 2CV, which is fantastically distinct from the Mini or the Fiat 500. These were all cars that served the same purpose, the only difference being how they designed it.

      So yeah, institutional design guides exist whether they’re written down or not. It’s either a function of some groupthink over what looks good, or the internal capabilities of the manufacturing process. This would be a great book, btw.

      1. No. The 2cv never served the same purpous as a mini or fiat 500 would. Check your facts brian. If there is ever a utilitarian car, it was the 2cv. Build for off road capabilities, quick conversion to a spacious cargo carrier, easy to service. Very minimalistic designed, actially more like a chessna. You clearly show you never have driven one.

          1. I was never a stoplight racer, but a topend guy. I hate to stop, so economics come into play. I read something official in Germany that said 4 cyl (something v small,) and 137mph topend. Add to it, the shocks self pumped, more bumps, more pumps, you ride higher w a longer shcok travel. Simple but elegant. If Form follows Function, it was an engineering masterpiece. That form said, I am the right shape for the job. Stop looking, get in, and GO. Be proud. If you think I’m ugly, be proud also. Even useless vanity has not been spared to bring you this purposeful engineering design. Live long, and go fast and far, cheaply and in comfort. It really is a car equivalent of a small caliber long distance military survival weapon.

            “Looks? What means, looks? Thees ess not a dress or a bra. Eet ees to move you, fast and cheaply.” I appreciated that, like the typical French [steroetype,] they stuck up their noses to convention, and made their engineering art form. It works! It looks like a vacuum? The suck part makes it faster. I liked it for that, and sorta wanted on for the same reason(s!) Maybe w a turbo. 137 is cruising speed to me. I grew up in “End Limit, Resume Speed,” Nevada, and went from there to the autoban. Oh, with a brief moment matching my boss’s MC record ride from Canada to Mexico. My 750 was stock and got 15mpg at that rate… 137-8. After falling asleep 3x and just half way, I quit, 1000 miles into it. I think he was doing caffeine pills. But now, roads are getting too crowded for safe speed. Desserts too.

      2. Erh, Tintin is not designed by French people !

        And indeed the 2CV did not have the same purpose as the fiat and mini. It was designed to be economic (if you have a chance to use one or get to know all the things that were invented and design to make it that cheap it’s pure genious !) off-road and utilitarian. Indeed it was mostly designed for harvesters. One of the first rule before designing the car at Citroen was « build me one car that can carry two people and 50kg of potatoes on the worst roads ».
        And, oh my god, this car is damn robust, it lasts for years and years

  2. Given the rate of spar/wing-rib cracking they keep repairing on these things, I just don’t think they’ll have the service life of the 747. For years now the economics of the A380 have only been kept up by the big orders from Emirates.

  3. Strange. You can put more people in a larger plane, so cost per passenger should have been lower than in a smaller plane. Which is why passenger planes kept getting larger in the 20th century.

    It looks then, that someone has scrwd things up at a design stage.

    1. Problem is, that means you need 500+ passengers that all want to go from one big airport to another big airport.
      This means “hubs” and having to get to said hub. People don’t like that, they want to go directly from and to smaller airports, so a smaller plane is more universal.

    1. Airbus was going to halt production last year, but Emirates was bullied into placing an order to keep the production lines open. Boeing was correct that the A380 has not sold enough to recoup the development costs, or make a profit for Airbus Industries. However building the A380 was a political decision, not a business decision.

    2. >>It’s the one about “Pigs with wings.”<<
      I guess:
      -you never had a flight on an A380
      -you never see at the Paris air show such a big pig(the A380) making literaly a U turn in the air
      The next Paris air show: du 17 au 23 juin 2019 !

      1. Agreed I’ve had the best Poverty Economy seats ever on an A380 a truly excellent vehicle.
        I may add if a few of these or the super Boeings arrive at an airport they simply cant cope at the passport and security they are just like small towns coming to land. The plane is great however pitty they are stopping production.

    1. …which is still in production.

      It’s also fair to argue that to be a ‘triumph of engineering’ versus a ‘feat of engineering’ it should be economically successful at it’s mission.

      On a tangentially related note… the A350 is freaking awesome.

  4. The statement about cargo conversions is incorrect.
    ”The economics of this are mostly due to the less stringent requirements for inspection on cargo aircraft versus passenger aircraft.
    Cargo aircraft meet the same safety and inspection requirements as passenger aircraft.

    1. And can you imagine how long it takes to board a plane this big if you don’t have adequate gate capacity? It takes forever to fill up a 747 and 777 at boarding time, same for deplaning too. If the gates aren’t designed right and skyways are not plentiful you can’t turn the plane around quick enough for the next flight. Big means everything takes LONGER, which hurts schedules too.

  5. Ok, perhaps I be mad, but for the life of me I simply can’t understand why Boeing hasn’t crafted a vintage/retro copy of the magnificent Boeing 314 Clippers? The flying boats are by far one of he most recognizable, unique pieces of avionic artwork. . People would line-up and pay-up to get a seat on one of these iconic birds to paradise, more so than the ill-fated Titanic or Hindenburg this piece of nostalgia never died, it was inserted put to sleep, scraped in favor of jets, akin to how the radio has lost out to the internet – radio is still viable and relevant, just as this airship would be a viable, workable, doable and might I interject for the capitalist listening ….”profitable” based on nerd-ism and romantic symbolism . Shouldn’t Disney and Boeing hook up and recreate these planes . . . . they’d have a place in the tourism industry

  6. The A380 was doomed from the start.

    The trend towards more efficiency has been visible for decades. The amount of energy necessary to perform a flight is directly proportional to the weight. So an efficient plane will have a large payload to empty weight ratio.
    The amount of energy required for a flight is inversely proportional to the glide ratio of the plane. The glide ratio is: how far can you get (unpowered) with say a km of height. (it’s a ratio, use the same units, miles if you like).

    The glide ratio number has been slowly inching upwards…. until the A380. There is a reason: For a good glide ratio you want the wings to be as long-and-slender as possible. With “it can’t be wider than a 747” as a design criterium this is impossible to achieve. The glide ratio and therefore the fuel consumption of the A380 is therefore worse than that of a 747. Due to being bigger, it might get a bit of that back by having a larger payload to empty weight ratio, but not all of it.

    The improvements in efficiency are quite noticeable. There is a Lufthansa flight on youtube where they fly to Japan on 70 tonnes of fuel where the day before another plane required 100 tonnes! That’s a 30% saving!

  7. It’s a shame efficiency doesn’t translate to comfort. I’ve flown economy in the A380 plenty of times with various airlines for long (13 hour+) flights, and I’ve done a few trips in the Dreamliner too. Given the choice I’d take the A380.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.