Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off

There's nothing quite like seeing an Airbus A380 for the first time. It's so big -- the largest passenger plane ever built -- that its wingspan almost runs the length of a soccer field, and more than 800 people could fit in one if all seats were economy class.

The ride is exceptionally comfortable, a plus when a flight can be as long as 16 hours and take you halfway around the world. The cabin offers plenty of space and opulent amenities, making it a favorite among passengers and crew.

Airlines, however, loved it much less: Airbus was hoping to sell as many as 750, instead it's scheduled to halt production in 2021 after just over 250 will have rolled off the line in Toulouse, in the south of France. It's been in service for just 13 years.

With a list price of about $450 million per aircraft, the A380 is a technological marvel packed with forward-thinking engineering, but it was conceived by taking cues from a bygone era of aviation, which ultimately clipped its wings.

The lifespan of the superjumbos already in service may well be further shortened by the coronavirus pandemic's devastating impact on the aviation industry. An aircraft that was once considered to be the future of travel is seeing its past approach ever faster.

So how did this giant of the skies come to take flight in the first place?

A European 747

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
The Airbus A380: Passengers love it. Airlines don't. Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The A380 was created as an answer to the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747. But for a while, Airbus and Boeing briefly pondered the unthinkable: working together to create a new superjumbo.

In 1993, they joined forces to study the potential market size for a very large plane, but eventually reached different conclusions and the joint venture never materialized.

"In the 1990s we had just a 20% share of the aircraft market and we weren't present in the large aircraft segment," says Robert Lafontan, former chief engineer of the A380 project at Airbus.

"We wanted to work with Boeing because we thought it was a good idea to not have competition in that segment. But after a while, Airbus understood that Boeing was not ready to have a successor to the 747, so in 1996 the decision was taken to work alone."

By 2000, Airbus was foreseeing demand for 1,200 jumbo jets in the following two decades -- and planned to capture about half that market. Boeing's estimate was about a third of that, which is why it decided to invest in new variants of the existing 747 rather than make an entirely new plane.

Airbus pressed on. The project, which had been known until then as A3XX, was renamed A380 and it attracted an encouraging 50 initial orders from six airlines.

"Boeing was making a lot of money with the 747 and Airbus wanted to be able to fly the same routes as the 747, such as London to Singapore, without any restrictions," says Lafontan. "The goal was to offer a plane that was 20 to 25% more economical for airlines."

The 747 had, in fact, thrived in an aviation world dominated by large hubs and a handful of carriers. Rising passenger numbers had created congestion at large airports such as JFK in New York, Narita in Tokyo and Heathrow in London, which were already running at full capacity.

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
Singapore Airlines took delivery of the first A380 in October 2007. Singapore Airlines via Getty Images

The solution, Airbus argued, was a larger plane that could get more passengers out of those airports, without increasing the number of flights.

But that tide was turning. The "hub and spoke" model was about to disappear in favor of "point to point" travel. Instead of buying larger planes to carry more passengers, airlines chose a different and more financially viable route: buying smaller planes and using them to connect secondary airports, which were never congested to start with.

"The world changed," says Graham Simons, an aviation historian and author of the book "Airbus A380: A History."

"The industry, in terms of manufacturing, changed to react to what the airlines wanted and the airlines reacted to what the industry was supplying. The net result was that the 747 and the A380 would drift down in popularity, while smaller and more fuel-efficient planes would rise."

A gentle giant

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
The A380's spacious interior means even more seats in economy.

The A380 was unveiled in Toulouse in early 2005 and first flew on 27 April 2005. Chief engineer Robert Lafontan also served as a test pilot during that period.

"I first flew the plane about a month after the maiden flight, and did several tests. One of them was a 100-ton overweight landing that didn't feel like an overweight landing at all. It was so easy to fly, it didn't feel like a large aircraft, it felt similar to an A319 or a lighter aircraft," he says.

The only full-length double decker passenger aircraft ever built, the A380 is essentially two widebody planes on top of each other, although Airbus explored several configurations in the design stage. One of them had two widebody fuselages side by side instead, using components from the A340, Airbus' existing four-engine passenger plane.

"We explored several configurations and fuselage arrangements, but in the end we followed a simple rule: to design the plane inside an 80-meter box, for airport compatibility," says Lafontan.

This limit was set in the 1990s by airport authorities, when planning for future aircraft larger than the Boeing 747. The A380's wingspan is just inches short of it, which allows the plane to operate using existing airport structures (although in many cases airport gates required upgrades to allow for A380 boarding operations) and to stay under the limit.

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
The A380's four engines deliver a combined 240,000 pounds of thrust. EMY GABALDA/AFP via Getty Images

However, the constrained wingspan creates more drag at high speeds, increasing fuel consumption. Airbus also had to add last-minute reinforcements -- and therefore extra weight -- to the wings after they narrowly failed a load test in 2006.

The wings hold the plane's distinctive four engines, produced by either Rolls-Royce in the UK or Engine Alliance in the United States. They provide a combined thrust of 240,000 pounds of thrust, capable of lifting the airplane's maximum takeoff weight of 650 tonnes and achieving altitude in 15 minutes. They offer a range of nearly 15,000 kilometers, enough to fly from Dallas to Sydney non-stop.

“It's just that the idea of a four-engine large jet in this day and age is clearly an anachronism.”

Aerospace consultant Richard Aboulafia

Because engines represent a significant percentage of the aircraft's overall cost, having four of them raises the price tag.

Compared to a twin-engine aircraft, they also require twice as much maintenance, use more fuel and produce more carbon emissions.

Although the A380 engines were seemingly state of the art upon their release, they were surpassed in efficiency and technology just a few years later, when the Boeing 787 was announced.

Ultimately, the A380's wing configuration and its engines put it a disadvantage compared to the newer generation of long-haul, twin-engine aircraft.

Built for comfort

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
Dubai-based Emirates has been the A380's biggest customer.

The plane included a number of new technologies in the airframe and avionics, but special consideration was given to the cabin to reduce passenger fatigue and increase quality of life on board, via a higher level of pressurization, lower noise and relaxing ambient lighting. These have since become standard on newer aircraft.

Lafontan says comfort was one of the criteria that informed the design of the plane from day one. Airbus even built a mockup of the cabin and sent it around the world to survey what passengers wanted, using these insights to influence the design of the interiors.

"The thing that got me was that on the main deck you can stand up by a window seat," says Simons. "I'm 5 feet 10 inches, and if I get on a 737 or an A320 I can't stand up by the window seat, because of the overhead bin. But on the A380, the cabin walls are virtually vertical."

The cabin is also highly customizable, and lavish options are available to airlines, such as showers on the business deck. "The idea of a shower in an aircraft is just mind-blowing," Simons adds. "And they have heated marble floors, and mood lighting that changes in intensity based on what the light levels are outside. Emirates put a bar down the back with an onyx bar top, and the protector they use on the bar top when not in use is not just a bit of cloth, but goat skin."

Nico Buchholz, who worked at Airbus during the development of the A380 and then spent 15 years as fleet manager at Lufthansa, where he purchased 14 A380s for the German carrier, agrees that the plane offers unbeatable levels of comfort.

"For passengers and the cabin crew it's a fantastic aircraft, because it's quiet and pleasant, it sits in the air nicely, it has low cabin noise, and the pressure and humidity levels are unheard of in previous aircraft," he says.

"Economically, however, when the price of fuel started going up and more efficient engines arrived from 2005 onwards, it started going in the wrong direction."

Delays and cancellations

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
The A380 can be equipped with a shower for first-class passengers.

By the time the first A380 was delivered to its launch customer, Singapore Airlines, on 25 October 2007, it was in a way already behind the times.

Commercial aviation was shifting and more efficient planes designed for point-to-point travel, like the Boeing 787 and Airbus' own A350, had just been announced and were commanding hundreds of orders.

According to Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of aerospace consulting firm Teal Group, the writing was on the wall.

"The only argument you could make if you were pro-A380 at the time is that history would reverse itself and times would return to a bygone era, when you had big 'hub and spoke' carriers that ruled everything and ran their national hubs like fortresses," he says. "You had to go back to the Pan-Am days, in short."

The project had also been hit by delays, which led to some airlines canceling orders, and although it would be years before the 787 and A350 would enter service, airlines could already buy a long-range plane that was smaller and more fuel-efficient than the A380.

The Boeing 777-300ER (meaning "Extended Range"), which quickly became the most successful 777 variant, allowed airlines higher margins with the same range of the A380, albeit with a smaller capacity.

"The 777-300ER started the killing of four-engine aircraft, whether it was Boeing or Airbus," says Buchholz.

No US buyers

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
Emirates installed luxurious upper-deck bars on its A380s.

The A380's survival has been directly tied to Emirates, which purchased almost half of all the A380s ever delivered and designed its whole image around the aircraft.

The production of the A380 could've stopped sooner if the Dubai-based airline didn't order another three dozen A380s in 2018. But when even Emirates cut down its remaining orders from 53 to 14 in early 2019 -- choosing to get A350s instead -- Airbus had no choice but to stop production, as it was making a loss on each plane.

In the end, the planemaker's $25 billion investment into the project will not pay off.

The main European carriers did buy the A380, but in modest quantities, and most importantly Airbus failed to sell a single one on the crucial American market.

That can't be boiled down to pro-Boeing bias, because other Airbus models are extremely successful in the United States.

“It was so easy to fly, it didn't feel like a large aircraft”

Chief engineer, Robert Lafontan

American Airlines, for example, operates the world's largest fleet of both the A319 and the A321. JetBlue, the nation's sixth largest carrier, doesn't have a single Boeing plane and nearly 80% of its aircraft are Airbus. United has the fourth largest order of A350s out of all airlines.

"It's just that the idea of a four-engine large jet in this day and age is clearly an anachronism," says Aboulafia.

US airlines fell out of love with the beloved 747, too.

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
Suites on Singapore Airlines' A380s were fitted with double beds. TOH TING WEI/AFP via Getty Images

Delta was the last American carrier to operate a 747 passenger flight, in 2018. The plane's latest variant, the 787-8 -- which is longer, but not larger overall, than the A380 -- has a future only as a freighter.

"The passenger version is now dead," says Aboulafia. "It might linger on a little bit longer as a cargo version, but given what's happening in cargo markets, I doubt it. It's basically in the same boat as the A380, it's just that it wasn't a $25 billion project."

There is, however, one thing that could allow the 747-8 to outlast the A380: It's scheduled to become the next Air Force One.

Dark skies ahead

Airbus A380: The wondrous giant that never quite took off
Cologne-based Aviationtag is selling tags made from the fuselage of the first A380 to be retired. Courtesy Aviationtag

Airbus has acknowledged its mistakes with the A380 project.

"There has been speculation that we were 10 years too early; I think it is clear that we were 10 years too late," former Airbus CEO Tom Enders said when he announced in 2019 that production of the aircraft would stop in 2021. He stepped down from his role shortly thereafter.

Chief engineer Robert Lafontan believes that the plane was targeting a niche market, but he has no regrets on the design of the aircraft, which he says has paved the way for many brand new technologies.

While production will stop, support for the existing fleet will continue as normal, and Airbus expects A380s to be in the air well into the 2040s.

But the plane's future is also tied to how the aviation industry will recover from the global coronavirus pandemic, and the A380 could be hit the hardest.

"One major problem is that there's no secondary market to speak of and a lot of carriers, particularly Emirates, pride themselves on young fleets -- so you could see 12-year-old jets being retired and turned into beer cans in record time," says Aboulafia. "We thought the fleet would linger on until the early 2030s, now it's possible they're all gone by the mid to late 2020s."

Although the large size of the cabin would help with social distancing measures introduced in the wake of the pandemic, it would be extremely uneconomical for airlines to fly A380s half empty.

And with low demand ahead, it will be challenging to fill large planes anyway.

"The A380 capacity, for a while, will actually not be needed," says Buchholz. "My feeling is that quite a few of the A380 which are currently parked, may remain parked."