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.
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.