End of the runway for A380? | Sunday Observer

End of the runway for A380?

Airbus A380 on a Flight from Sydney to Dubai in Colombo
Airbus A380 on a Flight from Sydney to Dubai in Colombo

Just a couple of weeks back, when I wrote about the imminent demise of the Queen of the Skies Boeing 747-400, I promised to write about the fate awaiting its Airbus rival, the Airbus A380. Unlike the Boeing 747, which started flying exactly 50 years ago, the double decker A380 is just 11 years old in operational terms.

Yet, two of the very first A380s delivered to airline customers are waiting to be scrapped in a plane graveyard outside Paris, with hardly 10 years flying time on the clock. What happened in just 10 years for the A380 to end up in a scrap heap ?

Future of flying

When the A380 was unveiled in 2005, it was hailed as the future of flying. The four-engined behemoth was capable of carrying up to 800 passengers (more like 600 with business and first class thrown in) up to a distance of 15,700 Km. Emirates, the biggest customer of the A380 with 109 units in operation, found it ideally suited to its modus operandi of transporting hundreds of passengers brought in to Dubai from feeder routes to the USA, Europe and Australia. Emirates even conducted a one-off commercial flight to Colombo and will probably operate the plane on a commercial basis once the Bandaranaike International Airport expansion project is completed.

Some airlines thought the A380 would make flying a novel experience again. The bigger size of the aircraft made it possible to have on board bars, public areas and even showers for first class passengers. (I have flown on the A380 only in economy, so I cannot comment on the luxuries on the upper deck). There is more room for passengers in all classes, though the airlines have the option of having all-economy seating. Some flyers somehow found ways to travel as much as possible only on the A380.

Indeed, it is used on both, short haul and long haul flights. In fact, only a few airports were initially equipped to handle the massive A380, but today many airports can.

But 10 years is an eternity in the airline business – a lot can change. Both Boeing and Airbus introduced two revolutionary planes that have changed the way we travelled during the last 10 years.

The Boeing Dreamliner 787 and the Airbus A350 have only two engines, but feature the latest advances such as, composite materials, lower Cabin pressurization, ambient mood lighting, better communications facilities and above all, less fuel consumption. They can go much the same distance too, at a lesser cost.

Easier to fill

Above all, these two planes can fly to virtually any international airport in the world with no modifications needed for the planes or airport infrastructure.

It is always easier to fill 350 seats than 600 – in fact, some airlines say they can operate two flights of the A350 to a given destination instead of one A380 flight and still save money on fuel. Not every airline operates on the scale of Emirates, after all.

Worse, the new generation twin-aisle Boeing 777-8 and 777-9 with folding wingtips and the world’s largest jet engines (GE9X from GE) are waiting in the wings to fly next year.

They can transport more than 400 passengers in two or three classes including, premium economy, which is not very far off the mark from the 600 passengers of the A380. Thanks to its folding wingtips it can access airports that cannot accommodate the A380. The one other factor that has a major impact on sales is the A380 price.

An A380 costs more than US$ 400 million per unit at list prices, which is at least US$ 200 million more than the price of a new 787-9. Even with a discount thrown in for the A380, I would rather go in for the A350 or Boeing 787 any day. And there are no takers for second hand A380s either – one can buy a smaller brand new plane for that kind of money any way. There is also no freighter version, unlike for the 747.

Thus the business case for the A380 is diminishing on several fronts. When Singapore Airlines began the first commercial A380 service in 2007, Airbus predicted sales of at least 1,200.

However, only 241 have been delivered until now out of 331 confirmed orders. Given the huge US$ 25 billion Research and Development Bill, the A380 has been a huge loss for Airbus.

Hanging on for dear life

The A380, whose production had crawled to a few units per year, was hanging on for dear life as a result of a lifeline thrown last year by its biggest customer Emirates for 36 of the super jumbos.

But Emirates was less than convinced about the fuel efficiency of engines supplied for the A380 by Rolls Royce and would now rather see the back of the A380s, as soon as an earlier order of 53 is fulfilled.

Apart from this, ANA of Japan will take delivery of three A380s by June this year for services between Narita and Hawaii. Now it increasingly looks like Airbus will have to shut down the A380 production line in the wake of Emirates’ latest U-turn.

Airbus will still get something out of the deal as Emirates wants to convert the order to either the A350 or A330neo (new engine option), but this will be a billion dollar loss to Airbus. And with 150 orders for the new 777, it could become Emirates’ latest flagship.

If the price is right

None of the other airlines that currently operate the Airbus A380 wants to buy the A380 again, with the exception of British Airways which says it might consider buying some “if the price is right”.

In fact, most of the A380 operators want to get rid of the plane as it is not very easy to fill and maintain. Perhaps, the only airline that successfully markets “love” for the A380 is the Portuguese Charter carrier Hi Fly, which has a “Save the Coral Reefs” themed livery on its sole A380. It recently operated a plastic straw and utensil free flight which won rave reviews from aviation bloggers.

The Airbus A380 was undoubtedly an engineering marvel well ahead of its time. But many other factors have conspired to make its presence a rather brief one. In a world with a penchant for short to medium haul flights to advanced twin engines that can do the work of four engines while sipping much less fuel, the A380 looks rather out of place.

As a passenger, I would love to see more A380s in the skies and at airports, but airlines have a different view.

They want someone in every seat and more fuel efficiency. Ultimately, that is what counts.