The rise and end of the largest plane in the world

Airbus A380 jet Emirates Airline – AP

It was heralded as the jet that would rekindle the romance of air travel and take us into the future. Fifteen years ago today, the largest passenger airliner in the world took off. Singapore Airlines Flight SQ380, honoring the double-decker Airbus A380 superjumbo, took off from Changi Airport and landed in Sydney.

The A380 has been the most technologically advanced jet since the Boeing 747 took off in the 1970s and the most luxurious for (air) miles. It was an instant hit. Airlines lined up to buy it and make it their flagship.

Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Qantas have added the bars. Singapore boasted double beds for couples. Emirates and Etihad have offered first-class passenger showers. Etihad even created the Residence, a three-room suite that had a living room, shower room, and bedroom, and came with its own Savoy-trained butler. It cost $ 22,000 from London to Abu Dhabi. One way street.

But today the leviathan, whose 270-foot-long wings were made in Wales, is headed for the landfill. Airbus delivered its last jet to Emirates in 2021 and closed the production line at the Toulouse plant. Air France, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways and Korean are unloading the jet. Singapore Airlines is reducing the size of its fleet. Airbus has never even recovered the development cost of 25 billion euros.

What went wrong? The most ambitious commercial airliner since the Concorde era proved too bold and badly timed.

As the 747 neared the end of its life, Boeing’s arch-rival Airbus thought it had been spying on an opportunity. Passengers, it was estimated, would welcome a new two-story even larger. He thought the airlines would rack up the highest $ 500 million per jet because it would allow them to fly more customers at once – the A380 carries up to 620 passengers, 200 more than a 747. it would prove particularly useful and profitable at congested airports, in particular Heathrow.

The Airbus proved the passenger right. We love the A380 and many of us are willing to pay more to board a jet that promises an “event” reminiscent of the Victorian days of the Grand Tour, when the wealthy took the three-day Pullman trains from London to Venice. and they treated it as part of the fun. Unfortunately, the airlines – the jet’s real customer, not the passengers – fell in love with the “big bird” pretty quickly.

Fall out of love

The problem was precisely what Airbus considered its USP: its enormous size. Taking a 500-ton plane the height of a five-story building to the sky and keeping it there requires four engines. This simply meant that it cost too much to run, compared to the new long-range twin-engine jets, especially Airbus’ A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner which are made of lighter materials and have more modern, fuel-efficient engines.

It didn’t help that the price of oil, which was $ 30-40 a barrel in the early 2000s when the A380 was developed, jumped to $ 80 when Singapore Airlines’ SQA380 took off. Worse still, just as the superjumbo entered service, the increased engine reliability and regulatory reforms meant that twin-engine jets were certified to fly long distances across oceans – they had to stay within an hour of a landing point. safe in case of engine failure.

The long-haul versions of the A350 and 787 can fly non-stop for 20 hours, long enough to carry passengers directly from London and New York to Sydney. Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas, said he could earn more money per passenger by flying two twin-engine jets between Australia, the United States and Europe than a single A380.

But cost wasn’t the only problem. Some carriers complained that the plane was too burdensome for staff and to turn around. An A380 requires more than 20 cabin crew members, three or sometimes four pilots, and takes a minimum of two hours to unload, clean and reload between flights.

Emirates’ UK boss Sir Tim Clark was the only airline boss to stick with superjumbo, buying 123 of them. That’s because his airline’s business model is based on volume. Emirates flies the majority of 70 million passengers annually to Dubai on long-haul routes and allows them to travel on shorter routes, the so-called hub-and-spoke approach. The A380 is perfect for long-haul routes, with smaller jets tackling the shortest jumps. Other carriers prioritize non-stop point-to-point routes, for which the A350 and 787 are much better suited.

For a while it seemed that Airbus had a solution: an A380 mk II, with a longer fuselage that created 120 more seats and more fuel-efficient engines to reduce operating costs. Fabrice Bregier, then CEO of Airbus, told me he would move forward when I interviewed him at the Paris Air Show in 2015.

He desperately wanted what he said was true, but by then most airlines had switched to the A350 and 787. He gathered only one customer for the proposed new jet – Emirates – and no aircraft manufacturer can afford to make. a jet for a carrier. When the program was discontinued, only 251 A380s had been built, a quarter of the number Airbus had hoped for. By contrast, Boeing produced nearly 1,600 747s.

The future of superjumbo

What does the future hold for fast and luxurious courses? The A380 will gradually be replaced by the single-deck, twin-engined A350 by the 787 and the new Boeing 777x, whose wings are so long that the tips fold up like a fighter jet when the plane is on the ground.

But the good news is that Emirates will continue to fly the A380 until 2035. In fact, Clark is investing more than $ 1 billion to upgrade Emirates’ current fleet of 120 A380s, most notably by adding a premium economy-leading cabin. category. British Airways will retain 12 A380s. Former critic Joyce has revived Qantas’ A380s with the addition of what he calls “a supper-club style upper deck lounge”. Translation: a bar in the nose cone where you can sit face to face.

Additionally, post-Covid delays in deliveries of new jets, coupled with increased demand, mean some airlines have actually reintroduced their stocked A380s. Lufthansa and Qatar Airways are flying again with their superjumbo. Many travelers consider the Qatar A380 to be the best in the sky, thanks to its vast bar and elegant first class. It also has the best economy class, a small 56-seat cabin with two bathrooms on the upper deck. Book it while you can and head upstairs for one last cheers on the clipper of the skies.

Will you miss flying the A380 when it leaves our skies? What is your favorite plane for a long haul flight? Please share your thoughts in the comments below

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