Airbus’s jumbo jet has struggled to take off as the industry moves to smaller twin-jets, writes Gary Noakes.
Too often, good ideas come along just too late – something Airbus admitted earlier this year when it cancelled production of its A380 double-decker.
The last will roll-out off the line in 2021, only 14 years after the first commercial flight, with Tom Enders, Airbus’s then chief executive, admitting in February that the manufacturer was a decade late in developing the super-jumbo.
In the same month, as if to rub it in, Boeing celebrated 50 years of its 747 jumbo jet. Both are spectacular feats of engineering, but the reasons for the longevity of the 747 and the early demise of the A380 is that the 747 was a step change and of its time, unlike the A380.
When it first flew commercially in 1970, the 747 was revolutionary in terms of its cost per seat and range, shrinking the world by making flying affordable.
The A380 delivered about 20 per cent less fuel burn than the 747 and with almost identical range while carrying around 58 more passengers in a typical three-class layout. Its problem is that it did it at a time when engine technology allowed a similar (or slightly fewer and more manageable) number to be carried on a twin-jet.
Airbus’s Enders knew this only too well as he closed the A380 book. “What we’re seeing here is the end of the large, four-engine aircraft,” he said.
Only 15 carriers bought the A380 – with no orders from North or South America or Africa – and early this year, Airbus suffered a fatal blow to its order book of 79 when Emirates reduced its options for 53 to just 14. Not since Concorde has one aircraft been so dependent on so few airlines, and Emirates has kept the A380 production line open by itself. It will finish with 123 in service, more than 100 more than the next biggest customer, Singapore Airlines.
Emirates swapped the A380 options for the smaller A350 twin-jet, while other airlines have decided there are just not enough busy trunk routes on which to place the A380 – British Airways, for example, has just 12. Virgin Atlantic, which made much of plans for an on-board gym and other fantasies, was one carrier that cancelled its order in favour of twin-jets as reality hit.
Airbus had bet on airlines expanding the hub-and-spoke airport system, with the A380 mopping up huge numbers of passengers at congested airports. Boeing thought travellers wanted more non-stop point-to-point flights to secondary cities (like Qantas’s 17-hour London-Perth route), which its smaller, less thirsty 787 permits. Boeing believes secondary cities have more room for growth, unlike first-tier centres, and it appears to be right.
The sales figures underline this: in April the 787 series, which first flew commercially in 2011, had 1,441 orders from around 60 airlines, with 829 in service. The A380 could only muster 290 orders from 15 airlines, plus around 100 cancellations. Once the poor sales became apparent, airports became increasingly reluctant to invest in the double air bridges and larger stands the A380 requires, so its fate was sealed.
Boeing won this round, but this doesn’t mean the 747 will retain its title of Queen of the Skies much longer – the largest operator, British Airways, will remove the last from its fleet in late 2022. Only Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China have bought the latest passenger version of the aircraft, the 747-8, although two ordered by collapsed Russian airline Transaero are being converted as replacements for Air Force One, the US presidential aircraft.
Like the A380, the passenger 747 is ultimately damned by the twin-jet era, but it is being sustained as a freighter – Boeing hedged its bets with the original 1960s design, which allows for a liftable nose for loading large pallets, making the 747 attractive to cargo airlines. It is still in production, with a current order book of 22.
But surely the A380 would be a better heavy lifter? Not according to logistics company Flexport. It points out that the aircraft’s full cubic space can never be loaded (using an industry average measure) because it would be too heavy. Moreover, the second deck can’t be removed, as it is a structural component.
In short, the A380 freighter is too fat to fly at a profit because it can’t lift the maximum payload that could fill it. As Flexport puts it: “It wouldn’t be fully loaded at typical levels of air cargo density.” That equation means the usual practice of converting older passenger aircraft to freighters probably won’t apply to the A380; indeed, two former Singapore Airlines aircraft are already in the breaker’s yard.
Lest plane spotters get upset, remember it will be another three years before the last A380 emerges from the factory and that a long-haul aircraft has a lifespan of about 25 years, so both it and the 747 will still be in the skies until mid-century. The future of air travel after that, however, is definitely not powered by four engines.