The A380 is Dead! Long Live the A380!

February 14, 2019

Etihad A380 at Kennedy Airport.

AIRBUS THIS WEEK announced that it will cease production of its flagship aircraft, the double-decker A380. The fate of the A380 — the largest commercial aircraft ever built — had been on the fence for some time. The decision to close the assembly line comes after Emirates, the plane’s largest operator, walked back a recent order, opting for A330 and A350 models instead. Emirates has over a hundred A380s in its fleet, but elsewhere sales have been sporadic. To date, only about 240 A380s haven been delivered, with roughly 75 more still on the order books. Once those orders are filled, some time in 2021, the line will shut.

It feels like only yesterday that I was writing posts and columns about the A380’s inaugural flight. It was October, 2007, when launch customer Singapore Airlines put the plane into service. Fourteen years will be an awfully short run for a jetliner that took fifteen years and cost $25 billion to develop.

I feel a certain glee in learning that production of the Boeing 747 — a plane whose future is itself in serious peril — will outlive that of the A380, the jet that took its place as biggest in the world. The hype and hoopla surrounding the A380 has always bugged me. For starters, the jet was never deserving of many of the adjectives thrust upon it: radical, revolutionary, iconic, and so on. The 747, which fifty years ago went from a literal napkin sketch to a fully functional airplane in a mere two years, was more than double the size of any existing jetliner, and it introduced economies of scale that, for the first time in history, allowed millions of people to travel long distances at affordable fares. That was revolutionary. The A380 merely built upon the 747’s legacy. It was a little bigger, a little heavier, a little more impressive technologically.

A380 and 747 at JFK airport, 2014.

And a lot uglier. Yeah, I’ve written some pretty unkind things over the years about the A380’s lack of aesthetic grace — most of them fully deserved. For all its technological accomplishments, let’s face it, it’s not a pretty plane — a sort of lumbering beluga with an outsize forehead. Nothing like the elegant, erudite lines of the 747.

That said, it’s sad to see the demise of any commercial aircraft. And I’m first to admit that for all its faults on the outside, the A380 is a pretty spiffy ride on the inside. Looks aren’t everything, right? And it’s in the cabin where the A380’s personality comes through. It’s spacious, quiet, and if you’re lucky enough to sit in premium class, decked out with luxe amenities. Whenever I travel first or business class on Emirates, for instance, I always make sure to book the A380 rather than 777, and will alter my itinerary to make it so. For all the badmouthing I’ve done, I’ll fight to score a seat on one.

It’s only a matter of time, meanwhile, before Boeing announces a similar shutdown of the 747 line. But don’t read too much into these closures. Airlines are still plenty hungry for big aircraft — just maybe not the ones with four engines.

Conventional wisdom holds that the jumbo jet is dead: long-haul markets have fragmented, and airlines have turned to smaller, mid-sized jets like the A330 and 787 instead. To an extent this is true, but there are, and will continue to be, plenty of very large planes out there. Specifically the Boeing 777-300. This is the aircraft, not the A380, that most of the world’s carriers brought in to replace their older model 747s. Because it does the job with two engines instead of four, and significantly lower operating costs. But it’s by no means a small aircraft. It’s almost the size of a 747, typically carrying around 350 passengers — with even more underfloor cargo space than a 747. Essentially, every 777-300 you see today — and there are nearly a thousand of them around the world — would, a generation ago, have been a 747. When you combine the 777-300’s numbers with those of the A380 and existing 747s, you get somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 aircraft actively flying — roughly the number of 747s ever built.

 
All photographs by the author.

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THE 747 IN WINTER
HISTORY, HYPE, AND THE WORLD’S BIGGEST PLANES
IT LOOKS LIKE THE FUTURE: UP CLOSE & PERSONAL WITH THE 787

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43 Responses to “The A380 is Dead! Long Live the A380!”
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  1. Vu Hoang says:

    To be honest, Airline must target profit hence 747 & A380 are no longer economically viable. For long-haul flight, A350, A330, 787 or 777 will be better choices instead. But I do believe 747 orders will be possible as they have been good cargo planes, for A380 not sure that is possible as it seems Airbus will have to review and conduct research carefully but I don’t think they will go with it.

  2. pamela_101 says:

    Well, it’s quite foolish for Airbus to pull the plug on their A3XX (A380) programme. There are so many companies out there that can use the A380 for transporting heavy freight that would otherwise take too long by ship, no matter what ocean(s) they cross. Think FedEx, UPS, and/or DHL; those companies would benefit immensely from an A380F version of this infamous Superjumbo to transport goods where time is money, and under that premise, companies will pay extra for heavier goods to be transported much quicker than via ship (or vessel) traveling on the ocean.

  3. To be honest, flying on the A380 was a more magical experience then on the B744.

  4. Aisle375 says:

    If I want to travel more than 1/2 way across the world, 10 hours or more, I no longer want to do that bundled into economy cram class in something which is basically a short-haul jet with extra fuel tanks cobbled on. Oh yes and they put in a plastic partition and a curtain somewhere and call the seats in front of that “Business” or “First” or whatever.

    Travelling in the magnificent spaciousness of an A380 cabin has spoiled me for anything else when it comes to long-haul travel. If I can’t fly A380, I’ll go by boat.

    • Eric S says:

      You obviously haven’t flown Air France’s A380 business class. It’s embarrassingly outdated, with a cramped cabin and angled seats. I go out of my way to avoid flying those, as Delta’s A330 and B767 or Air France’s own B777 offer modern business cabins with lie flat seats and aisle access to all seats.

  5. Mark C. Albrecht says:

    Yes, I can tell you are not sorry to see it go…and that excellent photo of the 380 with the El Al 747 in the background really says it all. The 380 was indeed a bloated beluga – or maybe a blue whale.

  6. Andrea G says:

    I remember an acquaintance of mine, who is ATC at JKF, relaying a few stories of rather hairy approaches by a380s. Made me wonder if it was more due to airmanship or the size of the plane vs. layout of the airport. The 747 and a380 are pretty even lengthwise but I believe the wingspan of the a380 is a bit larger. I assume that puts more limitations on the number of airports the a380 can utilize.

    • Patrick says:

      Performance-wise, the A380 doesn’t require more runway space than any other widebody plane. However, it has a very wide wingspan and taxiing can be tricky. When airports talk of “accommodating” the A380, it’s generally about gate, apron, and taxiway space — not about runways.

  7. Mark Harrison says:

    I flew to Canada last year with Air Canada from Australia on a 787 in economy class. My first experience with that type. It was fabulous! As is Air Canada.

    The chaotic reason for this trip (family) meant that I didn’t book a return flight. I booked a QANTAS flight out of LAX for the return leg. It would have been among the last 747-400 QF flights from the USA.

    The trip home was notably less pleasant than the 787 trip over. From a passenger’s point-of-view; I’m not going to miss it.

    I’ve flown this leg many many times in the past, but not in the the previous five years. I don’t know what happened, but the whole of LAX is a vast improvement from my previous experiences. Still far from perfect but not the enormous developing country embarrassment it used to be. So kudos to the LAX team. Keep at it.

  8. Linda Gurtler says:

    I have just returned home from Cape Town, South Africa with a connection in Dubai on Emirates Airbus A380, which my husband and I flew for the first time. Apart for the exhausting long flight time of 10 plus 16 hours, I have to admit, that it was, even in coach, a very comfortable and smooth ride. However, since it was a totally full flight of over 500 passengers, it took forever to retrieve our two pieces of checked luggage among the close to 2,000 of them coming out intermittently on the slow moving conveyor belt in San Francisco. I’m sure that our experience would have been somewhat much better in business or (unrealistically for us) in first class…plus, they get their luggage first of course.

  9. Alan Dahl says:

    I don’t see the 747 going anywhere for a while. Boeing sold 14 747s in 2018 when they only need to sell 6 per year to sustain the current rate. With the production line being shared with the 767, which itself gathered 40 orders last year, there’s little economic reason to stop 747 production if the current rate can be sustained. I suspect that Boeing is also betting that the older 747-400 freighters will begin to be retired in the next 3-4 years possibly giving 747-8F sales another boost. It certainly won’t be around forever but I think the old girl has some life in it yet.

  10. Slarti says:

    While I’m the first to admit that the 380 looks like something that is not supposed to fly and is not a feast on the eye, I also never understand what’s supposed to be “beautiful” (or whatever you wanna call it) about the 747. The hump, to me, is just as ugly as the 380. Both look wrong, not sleek like I’d like a plane to look. Patrick obviously disagrees, but of course it’s in the eye of the beholder…

    • MW says:

      I agree with Slarty. The hump of the 747 makes it ugly to me.

      The A380 is not good, however. It needs cockpit windows which meld smoothly into the shape of the nose (which the 747 does wonderfully) and it needs to be at least 20% longer.

      • Patrick says:

        It’s NOT a hump! It drives me crazy when people describe it that way. Go look at some pictures.

        From the cockpit windows it extends rearward pretty much on the horizontal, before tapering into the fuselage. It’s perfectly graceful, especially on the original -100/-200 models. The 747 doesn’t even belong in the same conversation with the A380, looks-wise.

        • Slarti says:

          Sorry, Patrick, but you can’t tell people how they perceive the design of the 747. Hump, schmump – to me it doesn’t look sleek. Neither does the A380, granted.
          A350 and B787, that’s how a plane should look – I especially like the raccoon, though it does look better from the side than from the front.

        • UncleStu says:

          Sorry, but I can’t resist:

          Marty Feldman in “Young Frankenstein” where he plays a humpback person:

          “Hump?” What hump? (or something close to that).

          Warmest regards to all,

          • Peter Paradis says:

            And thus it begins:

            Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: You know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.

            Igor: What hump?

        • mark r. says:

          “What hump?”

          Igor, from Young Frankenstein

        • Michael says:

          I’m going to have to agree with Patrick on this one. The 747 is one the most graceful and aesthetically beautiful commercial aircraft ever to take to the air. The so-called “Hump” is actually not a hump at all and looking at it head-on you can see the proportions that make it so pleasing to the eye, it actually makes the fuselage look narrow because of its height in relation to its width. While it may have been designed for a different age, I for one am going to be sad to see the 747 go.

  11. Speed says:

    Aviation Week reports, “Key to the [747-8] survival strategy was linking the engineering and production resources of the 747 and 767 models, a move designed to support the 747’s profitability at an extremely low assembly rate of six per year — while simultaneously bolstering the 767 through successive production rate increases.”

    [ … ]

    “There are presently 24 firm 747-8Fs in the backlog, which at the present production rate, will keep the line busy through the third quarter of 2022.”

  12. U. David says:

    I agree that the A380’s external appearance isn’t the most graceful, but the passenger experience is hard to top (subject to airline-to-airline differences, of course).

    Clearly, Airbus erred in believing that huh-to-hub flights on the largest possible aircraft was the way of the future, but their logic may not have been as flawed as it seems in retrospect. I recall an article (in Business Week, I think) that made the case that Boeing’s 30 year monopoly on very large aircraft gave them a great deal of pricing power in that market (i.e., if an airline needed a 747-size aircraft, they couldn’t threaten to take their business elsewhere to induce Boeing to lower the price). As a result, Boeing could price their smaller aircraft very aggressively against Airbus’ competitor models, and count on their monopoly on 747-size aircraft to make up for the smaller profit margin on smaller aircraft sales. This effectively made the 747 a cash cow for Boeing, and Airbus felt that they had to offer a competitor product. We should also recall that the 747-400 (the last generation of the 747 before the A380) was the best selling generation of the 747.

    To summarize: Airbus’s prediction of the market for very large aircraft was obviously incorrect, but it wasn’t as poorly thought out at the time as many are claiming in retrospect.

    • Dan Ullman says:

      If it went into production when it was supposed to I would agree. However, the eight years that passed before actual release should have slowed them down.

  13. Mike says:

    Let’s not forget the A350 XWB family of jets which are now cranking up serious sales especially to the Gulf carriers who were the original targets for the A380. That’s a lot of planes.

    I get my first chance to fly upstairs on a 747 later this year – one childhood dream to tick off, and then my first flight on the A380 on the way back. Sounds like I’m in for a treat on both legs of my trip.

  14. Dan Prall says:

    It’s nice to see El Al and Emirates getting along at the JFK mini-Mideast Peace Conference.

  15. Martyn Henry says:

    I must be one of the few people on Earth who have never travelled in a 747, let alone an A380. Have manufacturers ever considered that the sheer size of a superjumbo might put people off? I believe an A380 in all-economy config can take more than 850 passengers. I would hate to fly in a plane with that many other people. I am sure that many other folk must feel the same. Perhaps higher speeds are the future rather than packed aircraft?

  16. Simon says:

    It’s amusing to see so many people go on about how 4 engine jets should be phased out, how they’re no longer economical, how they’re not green enough, and all this other baloney. But what people fail to realize is that that’s an airline issue. From a pax point of view, especially in economy, these aircraft offered substantially better comfort. These are the last birds to offer half way decent width even in the cheapest cattle class.

    10-abreast on the 777 or 9-abreast on the Dreamliner is atrocious. And all the airlines are going for it. Good luck, economy suckers. Pay up for business or suffer. You’ll be wishing back a 747 or A380 when you try to figure out how to maneuver your knees around your ears all because you’d just like to get out of a sweater without bumping into the blubber of your 250 lb seat neighbor.

    And to those who knock Airbus for having made the wrong bet, yeah they lost that one there’s no denying it. But 9-abreast on a A350 or 8-abreast on an A330 is still the way wider economy seat than any modern Boeing. The last time Boeing offered a nice economy seat width was on the 767 (apart from a few early JAL/ANA 788 with 8-abreast) and those 767 long ago went where the A380 is now headed.

    • Michael B. Morris says:

      I have to disagree with you. Passengers – by a large margin – choose their flight based on ticket price. People in my circle who travel cannot distinguish between a coach seat that is 17.5″ wide versus one that is 18″ wide. And seat pitch (leg room) is far more impactful on a traveler.

      So, yes, operating costs – especially fuel economy – is the most important factor determining which equipment an airline purchases.

      • Simon says:

        The famous race to the bottom. Indeed.

        You may be happy to fly SFO-FRA for $400 round trip. But before I wedge myself into a 17″ wide seat, I’ll rather pay a few bucks more. Flying has steadily become cheaper. It’s already dirt cheap compared to what it cost me to fly in the 80s and 90s. So why should I go to 17″ just to shave off a couple bucks more?

        That might not be the view of the masses, but anybody who enjoys aviation (and would like to continue to) knows what I mean.

    • Bruce says:

      @Simon,

      Speaking as your 250lb neighbour, and therefore as someone who knows a thing or two about narrow seats….

      I’ve not been on a 10-abreast 777. I think that might be an American thing. The Chinese, Hong Kong, Emirati, Qatari, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian, Singaporean and Korean 777s I’ve flown on have all been 3-3-3.

      I agree that a 2-4-2 A330 is pretty reasonable. I’ve flown on an awful lot of them. But Philippine Airlines has some refitted A330s that are 3-3-3, and that really is quite tight. A lot of Air Asia’s A330s are 3-3-3 too, although they seem less tight than the Philippine ones.

      I’ve never been on a 2-4-2 Dreamliner, but I’ve been on a lot of 3-3-3 ones. I don’t find them that bad – not much worse than a 2-4-2 A330. Certainly I can manage not to spill over the seat onto my neighbour. Mind you, I recognise that I am fat, and I do put a lot of effort into not invading my neighbour’s space.

      As for a 3-3-3 A350 vs a 3-4-3 A380…. I don’t know. To me the A350 feels more spacious. But that could just be down to an illusion caused by the high ceiling, or the specific seat design used by the airlines I was flying on. Certainly both had seats that were more than wide enough for me.

    • Aisle075 says:

      I think Capt. Sullenberger would have loved to have 2 more engines! Give me 4 engines instead of 2 any time!

  17. Marty U. says:

    Patrick, are you sure this is right: “(777-300) with even more underfloor cargo space than a 747”?

    Do you mean square footage or volume? For some reason I had the impression that the cross-section of the 747 fuselage (and the portion “below” for cargo) was much larger than even that of the 777, but I could certainly be mistaken.

    Also, interesting seeing the 747 and A380 in the same pic. Assuming no optical effects from the angle, I had no idea how much lower the seating position of the A380 is (relative to the tarmac) than the 747. Does that make it easier for pilots to transition to the A380?

    • Ben says:

      The 777-300 and its second gen upgrade in the 777-300ER are longer than all the 747 models outside of the 747-8. This is why the 777-300 usually has more usable underfloor cargo space compared to the passenger 747 models.

  18. Daniel Ullman says:

    As has been pointed out, the cargo version is likely to last until a bigger cargo plane comes along. As you noted, the issue with the airlines isn’t the number of folks they can stuff into it but it is merely the number of engines and the fuel they suck down. With cargo, this is a very different issue than with passengers. You can jam a hell of a lot more weight into a 747 as cargo than you can as passengers.

    Most of the capital costs for the 747 have already been paid so it does not cost all that much to maintain even a much smaller number of aircraft produced each year. All of the tools and dies for 747 have already been made and paid for and the Everett plant is making 777.

    Finally, the passenger versions of the 747 cannot be turned into a cargo version since the nose cannot be retrofitted to open. Boeing isn’t competing against the vast majority of 747 retired aircraft.

    • mitch says:

      Daniel hundreds of passenger 747s have been converted to freighters. You’re right about the nose door. Instead,the retrofit installs a side door on the left side behind the wing. It’s big enough to take two rows of cargo up to 20 ft long, 8 ft wide and 10 ft high.
      [factory-built 747-400Fs and 747-8Fs have both a nose door and a side door] The conversion is: strip out the entire passenger interior. Plug the windows. Seal all the doors except the 1st one on the left. Install a new floor to take heavy loads, plus a powered cargo system. Install the side door. On the upper deck, replace the stairway by a folding ladder. Add a small galley plus seats and bunks for the crew plus “supernumeraries” – five occupants is the limit. Boeing used to do it in Wichita. Now they sell kits to mod centers in China and elsewhere. 747 freighter conversions are also done in Israel by Israel Aircraft’s Bedek Division.

      For lots of photos, go to
      http://www.airliners.net/search?keywords=747-400bcf

      For Bedek conversions, start at
      http://www.airliners.net/search?keywords=747-400+bdsf&sortBy=dateAccepted&sortOrder=desc&perPage=36&display=detail

      There is no freighter conversion available for the A380. Probably not ever.

    • Mitch says:

      Concerning the new AF1 747s – all Boeing presidential aircraft until now have been purpose-built for presidential use. None have ever been “used” i.e. seen any prior airline use. The current VC-25s were built “green” [empty] in Everett then flown to what was then Boeing’s secure Wichita modification facility. There they remained for several years of very extensive [and expensive] modifications

      The new 747-8I AF1’s will be new, but not purpose-built. The airplanes are the first two of now-defunct Transaero’s five-airplane 747-8I order [the remaining three were never built] . They were rolled out during November 2015, just as that Russian[!] airline was shutting down. They have been very carefully stored by Boeing ever since. According to public info on-line at Planespotters.net, they are line numbers 1519 & 1523, MSN’s 42416 & 42417.

      Boeing has always held title to both aircraft, so they can be delivered to the USAF as new, with full Boeing and GE airframe and engine warranties and performance guarantees.

  19. Speed says:

    I’m sure it’s just a coincidence — I received an email from Boeing this morning …

    “Did you know that cargo airplanes help transport over 20 million flowers for Valentine’s Day? Tune in today … as we go LIVE from the 747 production line to share how it’s done.”

    If you want to see what many 747s are doing today and will be doing long into the future, spend some time at the Anchorage airport. In the last 40 minutes four 747s have departed and two have arrived. Four more will be arriving in the next 20 minutes. They’re freight-hauling workhorses.

    • Rod says:

      Flowers! That always blows my mind. I know it isn’t new.
      Oh well, globalized consumption on that level will end all by itself once enough people get terrified out of Denial by Unfolding Events. My two cents.

      PS As Oscar would have put it, the A380’s demise makes one’s hair turn gold with grief.

  20. Gene says:

    I’m someone who regulates the Boeing widebody plant, and have for almost 3 decades. From what I understand, there will be no more passenger 747s built. All the aircraft rolling out now are -8Fs. Even the two designated to be VC-25Bs are -8Is that were ordered by the Russians and never delivered. They’ve been in desert storage since test flights.

    • Daniel Ullman says:

      “Even the two designated to be VC-25Bs are -8Is that were ordered by the Russians and never delivered. They’ve been in desert storage since test flights.”

      That sort of surprises me. The 747-200s that are currently used were originally owned by one of the leasing companies and had plenty of flight hours (citation, a Seattle PI article that I read in newspaper form over breakfast many, many year ago). Were they built for the Russian Government? If so, I have a great novel idea 🙂 .

      • Gene says:

        I believe they were originally ordered by a Russian airline that is now defunct.

        • Ben says:

          The Russian Airline Transaero firmed up an order of 4 747-8Is, but went bust before it could take full delivery of the aircraft. By that time, Boeing made 2 out of the full 4 plane order.

          • Patrick says:

            Aren’t those the ones being converted into the new Air Force One jets?

            Ex-Russian planes carrying around the U.S. president… no subtle irony there at all!