As the A380’s Demise Accelerates, A Look Back

A380

It was less than 20 years ago that Airbus officially launched the monstrous A380 project. The first true double-decker passenger aircraft from nose to tail, the A380 was built to hold more passengers than any other airliner — up to 800+ in a single class configuration that was never realized. The airplane was an expensive bet that the future of travel required big capacity aircraft to fly the biggest routes. That bet was a failure.

The A380 was an ugly duckling, and not just because of its oddly-sloped, dolphin-like forehead and stubby body that just screamed for a lengthened version. The market for such ultra-large aircraft simply didn’t exist in the way Airbus believed it did. Only 22 airlines ever ordered the airplane with only 14 actually taking delivery from Airbus. Now that the program is officially being wound down, we know that the final order count stands at 251 with only 9 still to be delivered. Emirates is said to be trying to wiggle out of its final 5, so it’s entirely possible there won’t even be 250 of the aircraft built.

So why didn’t this airplane work? Well, it was just not well-suited for… anything. There was a lot of dead weight on the airplane thanks to its design as well as the fact that it was built to extend to a larger version. All of the unusable space in the forward cabin of the upper deck as well as the inability to squeeze one extra coach seat into the lower deck rows meant capacity could never get high enough to reach the aircraft’s unit cost potential. It’s this extra weight that made the aircraft a useless freighter considering the steep price of acquisition. That’s why neither FedEx nor UPS took delivery of their 10 aircraft orders. The A380F was never built.

Other airlines just didn’t live long enough to acquire the airplane, including Kingfisher, Transaero, and Skymark in Japan which had 6 on order. Half of those Skymark orders were salvaged when ANA agreed to take on 3 aircraft in exchange for being able to take over Skymark. It didn’t necessarily want those airplanes, but it decided to move forward and dedicate them to flying from Tokyo to Honolulu. Now it must want them even less. It still hasn’t taken the final A380 delivery, and in fact, it just pushed that back to later this year.

Some airlines simply made a mistake ordering the airplane in the first place, giving Airbus false hope. Did Air Austral really need 800 seats to fly people between Paris and Réunion? No, and it never took delivery of its two aircraft on order. Same goes for Hong Kong Airlines and its absurdly aggressive idea to order 10 of the aircraft. The fact that Hong Kong Airlines even still exists is a minor miracle in itself.

Yet the most concerning early cancellation came from an airline that should have had good use for the A380, Virgin Atlantic. With its home base at big and congested Heathrow Airport in London, Virgin Atlantic should have been an ideal candidate. The airline could have used its precious slots to fly more passengers, but ultimately, it just didn’t see the value. It canceled its order for 6.

Across the airfield, British Airways did take 12 of the aircraft and was flying them on routes from London throughout the old British Empire to Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and Vancouver. Those had all been grounded since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it appears that some are coming back online. At this point, no definitive plans have been made to reduce the fleet.

The same can’t be said over on the continent. Air France had taken delivery of 10, probably because it’s an unwritten requirement that a French airline take delivery of every aircraft type made by Airbus. (Remember, Air France still flies A318s….) It had already retired one before the pandemic hit, and now it has announced they will all be retired permanently.

The only other factory-fresh European operator is Lufthansa with 14 aircraft. Lufthansa has never met a widebody it didn’t like, but it has said it will permanently retire half its A380 fleet with the remainder isolated in the Munich hub. There is one other operator in Europe. That’s Hi Fly, a charter airline which picked up a used A380 for cheap and is inconsequential in this discussion.

The A380 had somewhat better luck in Asia. After Korean Air ordered 10, Asiana had to follow with an order for 6 of its own. Korean has scheduled the fleet primarily from Incheon to Bangkok, Los Angeles, New York/JFK, Paris/CDG, and Sydney while Asiana has centered on Bangkok, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and Taipei. All remain grounded except for one Asiana aircraft which is being used to keep pilots current.

In China, only China Southern bought the airplane. It has 5 on property which mostly fly to Beijing, Los Angeles, and Sydney. China Southern is the only airline to have kept flying the A380 throughout the pandemic, though it’s hard to understand how the airplane makes much sense for the airline.

In Southeast Asia there’s a large concentration of operators with Singapore being the best example. Though Singapore ordered 24 of the airplanes, it opted to retire 5 of them when it received its most recent deliveries. It decided it just didn’t need them all and has had more success flying A350s around. How many of the 19 current airplanes return is currently unclear.

It’s hard to imagine that the other two operators in Southeast Asia — Thai and Malaysia — want their airplanes. Malaysia made that clear when it unsuccessfully tried to sell its fleet. Now it’s trying to make a business out of running travelers on religious pilgrimmages that can benefit from high capacity airplanes. Thai, which like Lufthansa has never met a widebody it doesn’t like, has parked all of its airplanes during the pandemic as it goes into a reorganization. It only schedules the A380 from Bangkok to Frankfurt, London/Heathrow, Paris/CDG, and Tokyo/Narita. In bankruptcy, it would be surprising to see Thai opt to keep those airplanes.

Down under, we find Qantas as one of the big early supporters of the airplane. The A380 was chosen over the 777 and Qantas must regret that now. Its fleet of 12 is largely confined to flying from both Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles and Singapore (and on to London). It also flies from Sydney to Dallas/Fort Worth. Qantas had planned to grow to a fleet of 20, but it won’t take the last 8 and is instead seeing better opportunity with the smaller 787. Qantas has just paused refits to a higher interior standard after only completing half the fleet. It remains to be seen if those six will end up returning to service.

That brings us to the Middle East, the only place where the aircraft has truly thrived. In a “me too” kind of order, we have Etihad (which is not expecting to retire the fleet) and Qatar (which was already going to retire in 2024 and now may move that up) each operating 10 aircraft to London/Heathrow, Paris/CDG, and Sydney. Etihad also flies to New York/JFK and Seoul/Incheon while Qatar goes to Frankfurt, Melbourne, and Perth. But these are nothing compared to Emirates.

Emirates has been the only true champion of this airplane with an incredible 115 in the fleet. When Emirates became the launch customer, it staked its entire business model on making Dubai the hub to end all hubs. It would be all about throughput, running as many passengers in and out as possible. This worked for some time, but then things started to get tight. There was only so much growth to be had, and Emirates began scaling back its plans.

After incrementally increasing its orders over the years, Emirates was the only chance the A380 had to continue on. There was talk of the A380plus with enhancements to improve fuel burn and increase capacity, but ultimately, Emirates wasn’t impressed. It canceled its final 39 A380 orders in February of 2019 and opted for A350s and A330neos instead.

Today, most of the Emirates A380 fleet is parked, but it will return to service. There are still eight A380s on order for Emirates, and the airline will take three of them to replace three that are retiring. As mentioned earlier, however, recent reports suggest it is trying to get out of the final five. That would leave the airline capped at 115 before it starts retiring them toward the back half of the decade.

If you’ve flown the A380, you know it is a passenger-friendly aircraft. The giant wings keep the engine noise far from the cabin, and it provides a stable ride. But that isn’t enough to offset the fact that it’s just not an aircraft that fits into airline plans commercially. It was already in the twilight of its career, but now, the dramatic reduction in demand due to the pandemic has pushed it closer to the grave.

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39 comments on “As the A380’s Demise Accelerates, A Look Back

  1. Wait… The A380 was intentionally built overly strong (and thus overly heavy), with the idea that it would be easy to offer an extended version of it? With what, something like 1,000 seats in a max-density coach configuration? That’s insane.

    Beyond Airbus and the airlines, I think we also have to consider the significant investment in modifications that many airports had to make (in terms of jetways, taxiways, runways, terminals, etc etc) to be able to support A380 flights.

    All that said, I wouldn’t be surprised if we look back 20 or 40 years from now and conclude that a huge airplane like the A380 was ahead of its time, given airspace & airport congestion, but who knows, perhaps increased technology and improved design will allow for reduced wake turbulence and aircraft separation.

    1. The current (only) model is the -800. The talk at the time was that the wing was designed to also work for a larger -900. If they had sized it for the -800 only, then the -900 would have required a redesigned wing and associated structures, which is expensive. Historically, successful planes get stretched, so this wasn’t insane. Wikipedia has a wings section with few more details, and quotes around a 10% penalty. They beat the efficiency of the 747, but with hindsight that wasn’t the competition.

      Would an A380 that was 10% more efficient have succeeded? Probably not. A full A380 makes money, but it is hard to keep full.

      1. I completely understand the idea behind making an aircraft easier to stretch down the road, and there are certainly many successful examples of stretched planes… To be clear, I wasn’t so much as referencing the concept of stretching planes in general, as taking a performance penalty to allow for future stretches of a plane that was already (by a factor approaching 2) the largest capacity passenger plane in the market.

        To your point, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference either way, but just thinking of the sheet logistics of trying to check in and board even (say) 700 or 800 pax in a mixed-class layout, let alone ~1,000 in an all-economy layout, get them through customs and immigration on the other end, and so on… It would definitely be doable, but there’d have to be a lot of thought put into it, especially if one wanted to turn the plane in a reasonable time.

      2. Roger that , freund !
        The A-380 is still the best best-riding/most-spacious/safest airliner flying . It is still highly efficient when full , due it’s size . Passenger volume may never reach pre-covid levels again , but air-freight levels will continue grow , as the world’s economy does . The best way to utilize the Super-Jumbo post-covid, is in combi-freighter mode . Filling the A-380 with low-density payload ,including pax/luggage, means that it can steadily generate a hefty profit. Installing double-wide pax doors would help greatly to shorten parcel on/off loading times . Carrying passengers main-deck only would enable service to smaller regional air-ports ; exactly where freight-companies prefer deliveries . Acquiring and storing a large number of excellent-condition used A-380s , would ensure adequate numbers of spare planes/parts for many years to come .
        *Long live the King-of-Airliners !
        D.H. .?

  2. I know it never made sense for most of the carries, but I will miss it as a passenger. I”ve flown in Business on the Korean and Air France versions, and in First on Emirates. So quiet, and so roomy – and all that dead space upstairs in the front was spacious, either Korean’s little lounge or Emirates’ showers. Sigh.

  3. While you remember the 380 as the first true double-decker passenger aircraft, I would offer that it was not the first one. And it, too, was French.

    [cid:image001.jpg@01D63FF6.C58C0180] Breguet Deux-Ponts, the first full double-deck aircraft

      1. Didn’t know about that one… explains where A380 gets its ugliness :)

        I thought the only decently looking ones were in Etihad livery. Every other one was way too whale-y.

      2. Didn’t the Boeing 377 Stratocruiser come out before that? From what I know the 377 had a lower berth deck for passengers to sleep

        1. If you really want to be technical about it, many flying boats had a least a partial second deck. For example, the Boeing 314 (the Pan Am Clippers that flew from the late 30s to mid 40s) had the cockpit and crew quarters on a second deck in the forward 2/3 of the plane, while the rear of the main deck was terraced upwards as one approached the tail.

          A lot of this depends on semantics and exactly what details/nuances/caveats/definitions one cares to specify, so there’s a good deal of hairsplitting in the discussion.

  4. The A380 was an ego project by Airbus and each of the airlines that ordered it.
    The bigger issue is the commercial impact of having to get the plane out of those airline fleets and rebuild networks without it. Emirates’ business plan esp. doesn’t look nearly as compelling without the A380. Being forced to fly A380s to HNL made no economic sense for ANA with the opening of HND and even more so with covid; I’d be surprised if ANA operates the A380 for even 10 years.
    Airbus did prove that you can get something that large into the air and fly it for 14 plus hours to boot without any manufacturer failures so they at least have that advantage over Boeing.
    Speaking of Boeing, the 777X might be the same type of albatross as the A380 with size that is appealing to a handful of airlines compared to more “pedestrian” airplanes like the A350 and B787.

    Glad I’ve gotten several rides in and will probably have to hang close to DXB to get in a few more.

    1. It depends on how you look at it, tactically, or strategically.

      It chased the 747 cash cow out of the sky. Sans the A380, Boeing would have had a monopoly on sales of 250 B747. What would the profit on that have been?

      Then, getting airlines to buy the A380 meant that those airlines would be far more likely to consider purchases of other Airbus aircraft such as A350.

      Without the A380, would Airbus have been able to compete realistically A350 to B777? It would have been far more risky.

      Then, look at what the result was for Boeing. Billions of dollars less free cash flow from the B747. It is of course speculation, but if Boeing had had a few extra billion dollars, would it have still gone cheap with the B737max? Or built a new plane? Who knows. However, a new plane would certainly have been more affordable with a few billion cash in hand. The A380 made sure that cash wasn’t there.

      Of course, while I am speculating, the idea of using a loss leader to starve a competitor’s cash flow, and get people in your own store is a very common strategy. And since the A350 and family have gotten a good entry to the market, and the B737 max is not doing so well, maybe Boeing might be hoping Airbus doesn’t have too many more “vanity” projects on the books.

  5. Interesting article, however the A380’s demise was sealed the minute the first cut of aluminum was made. Moving that many passengers was a lofty goal and fulfilled the goal of killing B747. The public settled the frequency/volume discussion. However, the real issue was airport availability. No flights to secondary airports, limited airport movements at some major airports, and issues as a freighter meant there was always a ceiling for aircraft sales. Throw in a pandemic, and the business case of a fuel-guzzling 4-holer falls apart.

    1. The 747-400 was already on its way out in the mid-2000s though. Maybe Airbus it took away a few dozen potential last orders and moved up the end of production slightly, but if that was its goal then it was an incredibly inefficient and expensive way of doing it. By that time the 777-300ER was a decent replacement anyway for all but the very largest (capacity) flights.

        1. If the A380 weren’t built, there probably wouldn’t have been a 747-8i in the first place. And of course the 747-8f is infinitely more successful than the A380F.

          The 747-8i was really only developed and sold as a response to the A380, at a very small fraction of the price it took to design the A380.

  6. Nice post Cranky!

    The A380 is a technical triumph, but a commercial failure. Much like another jetliner with the same legacy manufacturers: Concorde. The difference being, as mentioned by another commenter, that Concorde didn’t require some significant infrastructure changes to the airports it served.

    I think the A380’s most important legacy is that it may have shown the “upper limit” for commercially-viable airliner capacity, whereas Concorde primarily showed that a supersonic jetliner can’t be so fuel-hungry.

    So (to me) the question remains: if a supersonic airliner with a capacity greater than or about the same as Concorde’s – but with less of a voracious appetite for fuel – were developed, is there a large enough commercially-viable market for it?

    And – for the sake of argument – “commercially-viable” means development costs are recouped via sales of airframes, not via subsidies.

  7. For decades the 747 was a big seller for Boeing, and one for which no other manufacturer had an answer. But the 747 sold not necessarily because it was the biggest aircraft, but more because it was, for a large part of its existence, the longest-haul aircraft available. If you wanted to fly from New York to Asia nonstop – 747. If you wanted to go from the west coast of the US to Australia or New Zealand nonstop – 747. Etc. For many years the longest haul flights were generally on 747s.

    It turned out that “long haul” was actually a bigger driver of sales than “big”. When the A340 and especially the 777 came along, and then later the 787 and A350 (and long-haul versions of the A330, which initially was not a long-haul aircraft), airlines were quick to downsize to smaller aircraft that had long legs. You saw this on the Atlantic when the 767 and 757s got the authority to fly across the pond. You saw it on truly long-haul flights once the 777, 787 etc came on line.

    And it was that which ensured the A380 had a short and unsuccessful life.

    There are some places in the world where a very large aircraft makes sense, and that’s where a particularly popular airport is extremely slot-constrained. There just aren’t enough of those places/routes for the A380 to be economically successful.

    Ironically, Emirates’ A380 hub in Dubai probably helped drive more sales of smaller, long-haul aircraft. Emirates can undercut the fares of European carriers with higher costs. One of the ways a Eurocarrier can fight back is offer a nonstop flight from Europe to wherever – nonstops generally command higher fares. Which drives the need for Eurocarriers to have more nonstop flights that overfly Dubai. Which drives the need for smaller long-haul aircraft.

    1. Very good comments, enplaned
      You are correct that range, not size, has been the winner in commercial aircraft model contests over time.
      Not mentioned is the L1011 which was quite comparable to the DC10 from a performance perspective initially. However, the DC10 ultimately outlasted the L1011 because of the DC10’s longer range at higher capacities even though the L1011 is widely regarded as being a more technically advanced aircraft than the D10.
      The L1011 also sold about 250 copies, comparable to what the A380 will sell; the L1011 can still be very occasionally seen around the world; I doubt seriously that you will see A380s still flying 40 years after its introduction.

      As for your statement about the drivers of smaller long-range aircraft, I think the driver has to be US more than European carriers. The big Euro carriers largely operate from a single large hub; US airlines operate multiple hubs and have connected them globally for years. US carriers operate smaller international aircraft on average than their Euro or Asian peers. The 767 and then the 777-200 both were early successes helped by US airlines. The 787 basically took the concept of 767 network fragmentation and made it work w/ an ultra long haul capable aircraft. By the time the 787 was rolled out, aviation became a truly global endeavor and US carriers proportionately carry much less global traffic and have less influence on aircraft design. Airbus’ products reflected Euro carriers’ network needs just as Boeing’s earlier models did for US carriers.

      You are correct that Airbus has “plus sized” several of its models to squash the comparable Boeing model. They did it with the A330 vs. 767 as well as the A380 vs. 747. Unit costs go down with more incremental seats. Now Boeing is trying to do the same with the 777X vs. the A350 but the market size is so small and so heavily dependent on a few carriers that it becomes very risky for airframers to bet a model on such thin demand segments.

      All of the Middle East carriers and Turkish built their networks around a lot of spill demand that Euro carriers esp. could not or would not chase; that spill demand won’t return for years, if ever. Just as the US3 realize that they cannot allow the post 9/11 growth of low cost carriers to return with this recovery, the Euro carriers will not restrict capacity to the point of allowing demand to be spilled to 3rd country carriers; that dynamic explains the demise of the A380 as much as any other.

      1. Great commentary by both of you, as always. To your point, the L1011 was an over-engineered marvel and it’s a shame it couldn’t keep up with the DC-10 in terms of sales. If you speak to older pilots even today, they fondly look back on how robust that aircraft was. Even after the AA DC-10 crash out of ORD where the engine fell off, one would have thought that the L1011 would benefit in terms of sales.

        1. The L10 was an amazing, technologically advanced aircraft that was completely screwed by Rolls Royce’s continued failure to deliver the engines they promised on a timely basis. Sadly, DC10s filled the gap in those crucial early years.

          On the other hand, the only thing advanced about the 380 relative to its competition is its capacity.

      2. There seems to be only one L-1011 operation right now (the Stargazer satellite launch aircraft; according to Wikipedia).

        Part of the reason for the DC-10 and MD-11 remaining popular as freighters was McDonnell and then Boeing’s continuing support for them rather than Lockheed simply exiting the passenger aircraft market completely.

    2. That’s a really interesting point, on the balance between range and size, both in terms of driving airlines’ purchases of planes and in terms of economics. Since the 747 came out, or after deregulation (though one might be able to make an argument that this has dated back to when air travel started to replace trains and ships for longer distance passenger travel) it seems that the big challenge for plane manufacturers and airlines has been to build and operate planes with longer range and smaller capacity, while still keeping the CASM in acceptable ranges (think long and thin). When you eliminate connecting passengers, there just aren’t that many non-stop routes of (say) 3,000+ nm where there’s enough demand to fill a few planes a day with 300+ pax each.

      I know it will be another 5 or 10 years before the impact is truly felt, but I’m very excited to see if the 321XLR lives up to its hype as a potential game-changer for trans-Atlantic flights.

  8. Can someone explain why there is so much unused space on the forward upper deck? It appears like you could add several more rows before the arch of the ceiling becomes an issue.

    1. Isaac – I haven’t done the math, but I believe that staircase at the front makes everything on the sides useless for seating. I don’t think there’s room to put seats in there along with an aisle.

  9. I flew on it once and that was enough. Nice plane until you have to wait for bags. Most airport carousels can’t handle 1000 bags coming off at once. It jams them up. Took an hour to get our bags. Great in theory,bad in reality!

  10. Cranky,

    I think I recall reading here several years ago that it was problematic no US carriers chose to buy the A380. Some of the reasons involved few profitable international routes, even fewer domestic routes beyond coast to coast service, turn-a-round times & expensive airport modifications.

    Do you remember such a post?

    1. SEAN – I don’t remember that specifically but it’s possible. The US carriers never showed any interest in the airplane for all those reasons.

  11. Makes me all the more glad that I did a rather insane 23:45 routing SOF-MUC-SFO-AUS routing last November, largely to get on the A380 for the long leg. The upper deck Economy mini-cabin was great.

    Sad to see the plane go, but I completely understand why, and I’d rather have one-stop itineraries with higher frequency than sit on a big plane for a long leg or two.

  12. It was an airplane that was never going to sell in the USA, and that really hurt its chances for success. It was really only good for flying from dense capacity-controlled airports that have a lot of routes to other dense airports. The USA is too spread out.

    I flew it from LHR to DXB and back and really enjoyed it.

  13. This is the only plane that I will genuinely miss seeing it go. The MDs have a lot of history, but if you ever had to sit at the back with that engine in your ear, you know how unpleasant it is.

    The A380 is ugly and doesn’t make good business sense, but none of that matters when you are a passenger. In fact, being on it is the one place where you don’t have to look at it. Quiet ride, gentle movements, comfortable space, and doors and hinges that aren’t rickety — it’s great to fly.

  14. Great Post. Thank you.

    Size, range, airport processing. I cannot imagine why I would ever want to fly 14+ hours with 6,7,8 hundred other people, and then have to deal with all of those people at baggage claim.

    I guess its not that far off when we’ll allow ourselves to be tagged, slipped into a person- or family-pod, with a bag-trailer, sent to and sorted at Memphis, and off on some monstrous FedEx plane to who-knows-where, and back. Joy, joy!

    Hope we can get back to where an average traveler can say that the trip was as good as the destination, assuming that there will still be welcoming and worth-visiting destinations.

  15. I guess this is a ‘look back’ at the strategy, rather than the experience. The A380 is by far the most comfortable passenger plane that I have flown in economy, over 35+ years – nothing else has come close. Quiet, incredibly smooth (even in supposedly bad weather), and much like the top deck of the 747, grabbing Y seats at the back upstairs on an SQ A380 was a little bit like flying in a private jet. I don’t doubt the undesirable consequences of its size – but since I never check bags, I’ve not had to wait for 500+ passengers bags to beat mine out the other side.

    BA pilots are still evangelical about the A380, but I think the main argument is slot restriction at LHR. The absence of an A380NEO was probably what killed an extension to the programme – COVID19 has simply performed last rites. It was a pleasant surprise to have the China Southern A380 fly over my house shortly after take off last night (Brett, BA flew G-XLEA (I think?) between LHR and JNB in the past week, but as a repatriation flight). I hope someone finds something ingenious to do with the many airframes that need recycling.

  16. It would be amazing for someone to buy these retiring 380s dirt cheap and start JFK/IAD-SFO/LAX service. I would think they could undercut everyone else on the route (biz and economy class) *if they can get them cheap enough*. Anyone know enough about the economics to run the math? (not just operating cost, but factoring in the capital cost)

  17. China Southern is currently flying their A380 CAN-YVR once a week. Heard the flight is full and CZ charges CAD$2,000 one way for economy.

  18. When you consider that many of the trunk routes are also key business routes eg LON-NYC, frequency more than capacity was always going to be in equation to maintain that segments market share.

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