A380: The real reason the super jumbo failed

February 17, 2019

Much loved by passengers but hated by airline accountants, history will judge the Airbus A380, which was canceled last week, as just another giant aircraft that never really worked.

Only the Boeing 747, designed at the outset as a cargo aircraft, that could carry passengers until the supersonic jets like the Concorde and Boeing 2707 took over has succeeded with sales of 1,572. And it is still in production as a freighter.

Also working for the 747 was that it was the first wide-body and thus its passenger appeal was staggering and for quite some time the jumbo had the longest range.

The 747’s market appeal in the early 1970s was unique with twin aisles.

When the A380 appeared, in the middle of the last decade, it was for most passengers just another wide-body aircraft and it didn’t have the longest range – the smaller and more flexible and reliable Boeing 777-200LR held that trophy.

All through aviation history, giants of the sky such as the Bristol Brabazon, Lockheed Constitution, Convair XC-99, Saro Princess and Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose failed dismally, largely because they were way too big and could never make money.

The giant eight-engine Briston Brabazon promised luxury but only one ever flew and was scrapped.
The Brabazon brochure extolls luxury with a theatre in the rear.

And it is money – or the lack of it – that drives the airline industry.

Only in the last few years has the airline industry been really profitable with a return on capital and one of the reasons is because airlines are harnessing super-efficient twin-engine jets such as the Boeing 787 and burn 34 percent less fuel per passenger than the A380. And that comparison is for Qantas, which has, at 236 seats, one of the lowest seat-counts on its 787s. Airbus’s latest twinjet the A350 boasts similar numbers.

Airbus sold the A380 on the need to have larger aircraft for giant hub airports such as London’s Heathrow which is severely capacity constrained.

It also sold “the glamour” of lounges’ bars, duty-free shops, and restaurants a pitch that so annoyed Cathay Pacific Airways that it wrote to Airbus demanding it not advertise these features in its home market as they were unrealistically raising passengers’ expectations.

However, for airlines such as Qantas, Singapore Airlines and Emirates growth into London’s Heathrow meant bigger aircraft so they ordered the A380.

READ Sir Tim Clark’s 2016 warning on the need for more A380s

But there had been another significant trend happening that was spreading like wildfire.

Airlines flying from Asia to the UK found that many passengers were actually quite happy – in fact, delighted – to fly to other cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and even Cardiff.

Although that really should have been of no surprise as many US airlines with limited access to London’s Heathrow or Gatwick airports have been connecting secondary US cities to secondary European cities for decades.

That type of connection is called “point to point” and that has been the number one song on Boeing’s hit parade for the past 30 years.

Ever since the Seattle giant launched is 250-350 seat Boeing 777 in the early 90s its has been singing the virtues of flying nonstop citing the fact that when two cities are connected by a nonstop flight traffic triples on the route.

In November 2005 the twin-engine Boeing 777-200LR set a world record for a 21,602.22 km non-stop flight from Hong Kong to London over the US of 22 hours 40 minutes.

Enabling these twin-jets to span oceans and fly point to point were a new breed of super-efficient and incredibly reliable engines.

Back in the 1960s, when jet-powered aircraft were just entering service twin-engine models, which are way more economical than four-engine types, were restricted to flying just 60 minutes away from an airport on route because of reliability issues.

Thus, most early jet aircraft were powered by four engines.

That rule was born in the 1950s on the experience of complex and unreliable piston-engine planes.

But jets were a whole new ball game and quickly their reliability was turning heads.

One of the first routes to go beyond 60 minutes was Melbourne to Perth for Trans Australian Airlines Airbus A300s in the early 1980s when regulators extended the diversion time to 90 minutes.

Next twin-jets could cross the Atlantic as the diversion time went out to 120 minutes.

Over the next 20 years, the diversion time to an alternate airport slowly increased to 240-minutes as engines became more reliable freeing airlines to cross the Pacific.

Now it’s 350 minutes enabling airlines to cross the South Pole if they desire – none has thus far.

The next dynamic to change was seat kilometer costs.

For decades a reduction in seat kilometer costs required bigger aircraft but the trade-off was that the trip costs – aircraft, crew, fuel – cost were higher.

When the 787 entered service that all changed because of its engine’s efficiency and super light but incredibly strong composite structure and wing.

The 787 offered the lowest trip and seat kilometer costs of all long-haul aircraft resulting in Boeing building the jet at 14 a month to keep up with demand.

By comparison, the Airbus A380 is now being built at around 6 a year.

For Emirates, the writing has been on the wall for some time.

The Qantas nonstop 787 flight from Perth to London is the airline’s most profitable.

Every night at around 1 am a Qantas Boeing 787-9 operating from Perth to London non-stop overflies Dubai at 11,000mtrs at 900km/hour with passengers that were once being carried on its A380 via Dubai on a code-share with partner Qantas.

That flight is operating at 92 percent full and in the premium cabin, 94 percent full.

Sure, it is just one flight but it is the start of an avalanche of ultra-long-range non-stop services by more nimble aircraft.

And soon Qantas – and others including Emirates – will have aircraft that can operate from Sydney to London nonstop with an economical payload – way beyond the capability of the A380.

Since the Boeing 787 entered service the aircraft has opened up 240 new routes and this September All Nippon Airways starts another Tokyo to Perth.

And whereas the A380 comes in one size there are three different models of the 787 with some airlines having all three in their fleets.