Less than 20 years after the aircraft program was launched, Airbus announced last week that it would begin winding down production on the A380. I’ve always thought this was an airplane that never should have been built. If Airbus breaks even on this program, then that would be the best possible outcome. If that doesn’t scream “not successful,” I don’t know what does. But that doesn’t mean it was all bad. In fact, as a passenger, the airplane was — and is — a delight to fly. So, consider this an appreciation for the airplane… even if it’s an appreciation that’s going to point out all the flaws.
When the A380 was first launched at the dawn of the millennium, it was touted as the solution to increasingly-crowded airports. As passenger numbers increased, there would be a greater need for large airplanes to help transport the masses. At least, that was what Airbus believed. Boeing, however, thought that was ridiculous.
As far as Boeing was concerned, the real demand would be for smaller airplanes that would allow flights between cities that couldn’t support nonstops on bigger flights as well as additional frequencies in markets that already had service. Boeing won that bet handily as the 787 has become one of the most popular airplanes flying. Hindsight is 20/20, but Airbus would have been smart to listen to all the naysayers.
Things did not start off well. The airplane took several delays, and the freighter was abandoned early on. But when Airbus finally rolled the A380 out, it took my breath away in ways both good and bad. There’s no doubt that it was ugly as sin with that stubby body and low, sloping forehead. Put it next to a regal 747 and the difference was dramatic. But it was also truly massive in a very impressive way. The wing was a feat of engineering. This was an airplane that could take off weighing more than 1 million pounds. Talk about a technological marvel.
While it was a marvel, it was also a giant pain in the neck for airports. The wingspan was so large and the capacity so big that airports had to rethink how they could even handle the beast. Some of the biggest airports in the world scrambled to build gates with jet bridges on two levels to help facilitate boarding and deplaning more quickly. They also had to think about larger waiting areas. Taxiways and terminals were reconfigured to be able to handle the airplane, but the work was never fully done. In Los Angeles, for example, they still need to block taxiways to let the A380 move around on some parts of the airfield. And at JFK, British Airways still doesn’t have any A380-capable gates in its Terminal 7.
While the usual suspects ended up buying a handful of A380s due to national pressure (Lufthansa, Air France, British Airways), delusions of grandeur (Malaysia, Thai), or me-too syndrome (Asiana, Etihad, Qatar), there was really only one airline that truly loved the airplane. That was Emirates.
Emirates was responsible for about half of the A380s ordered with 162 along with options for another 16. It built Dubai into a massive transit hub where dozens of A380s would line up to trade passengers from all corners of the world. Emirates loved the airplane, because it arrived at the right time. Just as Dubai was ramping up to make its mark in the world, Emirates was there to support the effort.
Passengers agreed with Emirates right off the bat. The airplane was gigantic but felt comfortable on the inside. It was exceedingly quiet and handled turbulence very well. It proved to be rather popular with anyone who flew it, but it wasn’t popular enough that it influenced purchase decisions.
Early supporters became more lukewarm over time. Singapore Airlines began returning its early models to lessors, because it had no use for all of them. Air France did the same. And Qantas lost a decade of growth opportunities because of its focus on the A380 over smaller aircraft. Only now with the 787 coming into the fleet is Qantas catching up. Others, like Virgin Atlantic, canceled their orders before an airplane ever arrived on property.
Airbus publicly remained optimistic that it would find takers, but it never did. The airlines agreed with Boeing’s vision of the future, and the smaller A350 benefited. But the A380 remained mostly unwanted.
Airbus went into desperation mode trying to find new ways to improve the airplane. It looked at lowering the floor to be able to seat one more person in each row in coach. (It was awkward and terrible.) Airbus also worked on re-engining the airplane to be more efficient, even though it would still have twice as many engines as most other aircraft flying. The only airline that bit was Emirates, ordering 20 more and holding options for another 16. That was expected to keep the production line humming… slowly… into the 2030s.
The joy of having saved the line eventually turned to fear as engines failed to meet expectations and Emirates started getting cold feet. I have to assume that the growth opportunities for Emirates started looking much less attractive as the operation continued to grow and the economy stagnated.
The death knell was sounded last week when Emirates opted to cancel 39 of its remaining orders leaving it with only 14 aircraft to be delivered over the next two years. The production of the A380 will end for good in 2021.
In its place, Emirates has validated Boeing’s beliefs from long ago. The airline has ordered 40 A330-900s alongside 30 A350-900s to grow with those smaller aircraft.
While it’s always sad to see the end of the line for any aircraft, it’s entirely understandable here. Each year that passed, newer technology airplanes with better efficiency came into the market and made the A380 even more obsolete than it already was. Even if future capacity constraints make a larger aircraft more desirable in the future, it won’t be the A380. It’ll be something with a newer and more efficient design.
As a quick aside, this likely marks the end of the passenger-carrying, 4-engine jumbo jet. Boeing has no more passenger 747-8s on order, and I doubt any more will roll in. It’s the end of an era.
While the end is now in sight, all of this past-tense discussion is premature. It’s important to remember that you’ll be able to actually fly on these airplanes for years to come. It’s not like they’ll all be retired when production is done. Here’s where you can find them in the US as of now.
- Air France (10) – It may have 10 today, but Air France expects to be rid of half of those by the end of the year. This year it flies from Paris to JFK, Miami, Washington/Dulles, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, but I assume that will have to shrink as the fleet is halved.
- ANA (3) – The newest operator of the A380 is dedicating these to the Tokyo – Honolulu route, so you’ll see them there for some time.
- Asiana (6) – You’ll find Asiana’s A380s in Los Angeles, usually twice a day.
- British Airways (12) – In the US, BA flies to LA, San Francisco, Miami, Boston, and soon Chicago with this airplane.
- China Southern (5) – These are flying to Los Angeles.
- Emirates (123) – You’ll find these pretty much everywhere. Try Los Angeles, San Francisco, JFK, Dulles, and Houston for now.
- Etihad (10) – Within the US, it’s just JFK that gets these airplanes.
- Hi Fly (1) – This is a charter aircraft, so there’s no way of knowing where it’ll end up on any given day.
- Korean (10) – Korean continues to fly double daily flights from Los Angeles. JFK sees it as well, but I believe that’s it in the US.
- Lufthansa (14) – You can find them flying from Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami to Frankfurt as well as Los Angeles and San Francisco to Munich.
- Malaysia (6) – You won’t see these or any other Malaysia airplanes in the US.
- Qantas (12) – As of now you’ll see these only in Los Angeles and Dallas/Fort Worth.
- Qatar (10) – Qatar does not fly these airplanes to the US.
- Singapore (19) – Singapore may have expanded recently in the US, but the only place getting the A380 today is New York/JFK.
- Thai (6) – As with Malaysia, you won’t see these or any Thai airplanes in the US.
As a passenger, I plan on enjoying the A380 several more times before it disappears from the skies. And I will be sad to see it go when it does. But from every other perspective? The end of this program is a good thing. So long, A380. It’s been… interesting.