Airbus A380 'superjumbo': What went wrong for the largest passenger plane?

Production of the ‘SuperJumbo’ will end in 2021

Simon Calder
Travel Correspondent
Thursday 14 February 2019 10:40 GMT
Airbus A380 - What went wrong for the largest passenger plane

The European aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, has said production of its biggest plane, the A380, will end in 2021 – just 14 years after entering service. It had previously planned to continue building the “superJumbo” well into the 2020s.

But orders from the biggest customer for the A380, Emirates, have slowed as it downsizes to smaller Airbus planes.

What went wrong with the Airbus vision for a world-beating aircraft?

A380: success or failure?

In terms of passenger satisfaction, an outright winner. Business travellers and leisure passengers alike love the aircraft – it is quiet, roomy and comfortable. But commercially it has been an abject failure, which has signally failed to recoup the original investment of around $25bn.

The venerable Boeing 747 Jumbo, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary in flight, has sold six times as many planes.

Why did the A380 not sell well?

It is a 20th-century design with four engines, and costs per seat are commensurately high. Because of its sheer size, ground infrastructure is expensive. Those factors are offset to some extent by the passenger preference – some people will pay a premium to fly the aircraft – and the way that it extracts maximum value from “slot-constrained” airports such as London Heathrow. But the main problem is that there are relatively few routes on which it is a successful plane.

Even on London-New York, the world’s leading intercontinental route, there are no A380s among the dozens of flights.

Airbus had been pinning its hopes on airlines choosing the SuperJumbo to cope with increasing congestion at key hubs, saying: “Larger aircraft like the A380 combined with higher load factors make the most efficient use of limited airport slots.” But the orders from airlines such as British Airways simply did not materialise.

Does this mean the “hub and spoke” aviation model is finished?

No. Certainly there are many more point-to-point routes than there were a decade ago, with the narrow-bodied A320 and Boeing 737 linking an increasing number of cities, but hubs are still very much in business. Indeed, the Boeing 787, which had been christened the “hub buster”, spends the majority of its time connecting hubs.

Emirates’ Dubai base is “A380 central”, but other global hubs such as Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Istanbul, Singapore, Hong Kong, Atlanta and Sao Paulo are thriving on smaller jets. The A350 and Boeing 777X (an upgraded version of the 25-year-old twin-jet) look set to become the workhorses for the next decade.

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When will the last A380 touch down for the final time?

The SuperJumbo will be flying well into the 2030s – the order book will see to that. But the problem which has always hounded the A380 is: what is a second-hand one worth? Early versions are being taken apart for scrap. There is no demand from Indian or Chinese carriers to put in up to 873 seats and fly them on key regional routes. And it is unclear what other use there may be for elderly vast jets, even with one careful owner.

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