ATW Editor's Blog

Adieu, A380


The Airbus A380 was an airliner that fell behind the times, both in the market it was designed to serve and in the technologies that set it apart when it first entered service.

Airbus’ main market pitch at the turn of the millennium was that a 525+ seater would airlines’ ability to maximize slot-constrained hubs on the world’s busiest routes like London-New York.

The sales pitch, however, did not match the realities of changing market needs as the A380 entered service in 2007. Yes, air traffic demand has continued to grow healthily, with some markets doubling or tripling in size, but airlines have still managed to find the slots they need, even at congested airports like Heathrow, either directly or via their alliance partners.

Meanwhile, other trends emerged for which the A380 was not a good fit. Airlines increasingly looked to boost their competitiveness by adding frequencies on major routes to attract business travelers or by creating new markets through the opening of city-pair routes that linked places with non-stop air service for the first time.

These trends for frequency and for long, thin point-to-point routes were not best suited to the A380 because of the risk of operating half-empty aircraft. For these routes, the newer, twin-engined widebodies developed by both Airbus and Boeing were the answer, each offering smaller cabins, but greater efficiencies and lower seat-mile costs. The Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 have attracted far broader customer bases; the A380 rapidly became a niche aircraft.

The numbers tell the story. The A380, which went into service in 2007, has just 313 orders from 16 customers. And its success lies mostly with a single customer, Dubai-based Emirates, which has 162 A380s delivered or on order. The A350, which entered service in 2015, eight years after the A380, has accumulated almost 900 orders from around 50 customers. The Boeing 787 has amassed more than 1,400 orders from some 75 customers since entering service in 2011.

And while the A380 set new airliner comfort standards, the twin-engined A350 and 787 incorporate technologies that make them at least as quiet and comfortable.

Airbus’ biggest mistake with the A380 was massively over-estimating the size of the market for a very large aircraft. Its bet that it could sell some 1,500 aircraft was a hugely expensive misread of where the market would go. Some industry analysts estimate the A380 program has cost over $25 billion.

It was therefore inevitable that after Emirates announced this week it was reducing its last major A380 order from 53 to 14, and with no real prospects for significant orders from other carriers or lessors, the program was declared unsustainable. Deliveries will end in 2021, Airbus CEO Tom Enders announced Feb. 14, although it’s likely passengers will still be flying on the world’s largest airliner well into the 2030s. For Emirates, whose chairman and CEO called the aircraft “a wonderful aircraft loved by our customers and our crew”, the A380 was a gamechanger.

For most airlines, however, the A380 was just too much of a good thing.

Karen Walker

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