Airbus A380 faces uncertainty as it marks 10 years in service.

October 24, 2017
A380 wake turblence Sydney Airport
Photo: James Morgan.

It was the slow-motion, eerily quiet take-off that surprised passengers lucky enough to be on the first scheduled flight of the new Airbus A380.

The take-off roll by the big Singapore Airlines jet seemed more like a fast taxi as the superjumbo put on speed to allow its giant wings to gather lift.

Where was the noise? The vibration? The sense of hurtling down the runway at break-neck speed?

It was October 25, 2007, and the historic A380 passenger flight was taking to the skies at Singapore’s Changi Airport before heading to Sydney.

Sydney had been chosen because it was a good medium-length route on which to bed down the new aircraft and because of Singapore’s strong presence in Australia.

On board the double-decker were 455 passengers from 35 nations, including a 75-strong international media contingent hosted by then Singapore Airlines chief executive Chew Choon Seng.

Singapore 10 years first flight
Singapore Airlines’ former CEO Chew Choon Seng during the first flight. Photo: Geoff Thomas.

Former internet entrepreneur Justin Hayward paid $US100,380 in a charity auction for two first-class suites on the inaugural flight as well as trip the headquarters of manufacturer Airbus in Toulouse, France, for the handover of the plane. The auction raised $S2 million for worthy causes.

The 12 first-class suites included privacy screens, luxurious leather chairs, separate fold-out beds and a widescreen television screen.

Singapore 10 years
The media were excited by this shout of rose petals on the double bed.

The four middle cabins could be combined into two double cabins for couples traveling together, a design that prompted a flurry of predictable speculation from the media about high-altitude liaisons.

Hayward, an aviation enthusiast who also flew on Concorde and a Russian Mig25 flight, believed the hefty donation was worth the cost.

Singapore 10 years
Passengers celebrated the first flight with Dom Perignon. Photo: Steve Creedy.

The Briton said he was impressed by the first-class suites, particularly the comfortable full-size bed and the privacy the cubicle offered.

“I’m not sure I’d feel isolated enough to take full advantage of it though,” he joked.

Singapore had initially hoped for an entry into service in 2006 but production problems, including a famous mix up over wiring harnesses due to confusion between French and German engineers, delayed it until the following year.

Even so, the carrier would also have first mover advantage until Dubai-based Emirates began flying the A380 in August, 2008, and Qantas joined the club with its first flight in October that year.

The A380 began life as the A3XX amid claims it would host amenities ranging from gymnasiums to spas and waterfalls.

It was designed for a stretch that never happened with wings 54 percent bigger than a Boeing 747-400 and an 80m (262.4ft) wingspan that was twice the distance of the original Wright Brother’s flight.

At 24.1m (79ft), its height was equivalent to a 10-storey building and its 73m (239.5ft)  fuselage the equivalent of two blue whales.

Someone even calculated that the 3600 litres of paint needed to cover the aircraft’s exterior would have allowed Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel 97 times.

Airbus pitched the aircraft as designed for 555 passengers in a nominal three-class configuration but certified it to carry as many as 853 passengers in full economy mode.

As always,  it was up to the airlines to decide how they configured the interior and Singapore opted for premium 471-seat (399 economy, 60 business and 12 first class)  configuration.

It was this kind of decision to make the flagship superjumbo a premium experience that would make it such a favorite with travelers.

As well as the first-class suites, the Singaporean aircraft came with the widest business class seats in the sky and a comfortable economy class.

There was plenty of room to move in Singapore Airlines’ extra-wide seats.

The seats were the result of feedback from Singapore’s customers that they would prefer more personal space rather than the amenities touted by Airbus such as bars, lounges and shops.

At 34-inches wide, the seat was half as wide again as the average seat and came in a 1-2-1 configuration that guaranteed everyone aisle access.  It was so wide that an average person could easily slip in and out with the tray table out.

A flip mechanism allowed the seat to quickly convert into a bed but not everyone was keen on the idea of sleeping diagonally. The extra width also meant the airline had to provide extra pillows for support.

The seat came with a big screen to showcase the airline’s comprehensive Krisworld on-demand entertainment service as well as noise-canceling headsets, conveniently located laptop power and USB ports.

Such was the lure of the new plane that the Singapore-Sydney leg was already 90 percent booked for almost three months in advance.

But it was left to Emirates to provide the headline-grabbing amenities with a shower and suites in first class as well as a cocktail bar at the rear of the upper cabin.

Emirates 10 years A380
Emirates president Tim Clark at the popular A380 bar during his airline’s first flight from Dubai to New York in 2008. Photo: Geoff Thomas.

Emirates also introduced an early version of the now popular business class suites in a staggered configuration that gave everyone aisle access.

It included plenty of storage options, including a place to park a laptop, as well as a small mini-bar.

Qantas opted to modify the Marc Newson-designed business seats used on its Boeing 747s while introducing a whopping 80-inch seat pitch that imparted an unprecedented sense of spaciousness.

A380 10 years service
The first Qantas A380 ready to head home from Toulouse. Photo: Steve Creedy.

Other features on the 450-seat plane included a small lounge area and self-service bars in economy.

The flying kangaroo also did something the others didn’t: it added premium economy to the giant plane.

Its premium economy cabin featured 32 ergonomically-designed seats by Recaro as well as a dedicated self-service bar as well as perks such as premium food and wine.

The A380 was an efficient plane – provided it was full. And therein lay a problem. While Emirates and Singapore could use their mid-point hubs to fill the planes, Qantas initially struggled to get decent load factors on its European routes.

Airlines were also watching closely as manufacturers prepared to launch fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft such as Boeing 787 and and A350 which could match or beat the A380 on the cost of taking a passenger each mile.

A decade on, two of the three superjumbo pioneers have rethought not just their cabins but their ambitions for the A380.

Qantas was originally going to take 20 aircraft but has limited the number to 12 while Singapore, which is keeping its fleet at  19, is renewing its fleet by replacing aircraft going off-lease.

Qantas will replace its A380 business class seats with the well-received suites now gracing its A330s and Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner as it expands premium seating, adds a new lounge and refurbishes its economy seats from 2019.

The addition of another six business class and 25 premium economy seats is in response to an increased demand for premium cabins on flights to the US, Europe and Asia.

Singapore is due to unveil its new A380 product in early November and has promised that it will be better than its current generation product.

Emirates continues to power on as the world’s biggest operator of A380s, although it has delayed some deliveries, and will receive its 100th superjumbo on November 3.

It recently introduced a makeover of its popular onboard lounge inspired by private yachts and is using the big plane to service  45 destinations spanning Africa, Asia,  Australasia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas.

Emirates bar
The revamped Emirates bar. Photo: Emirates.

“The A380 has been, and continues to be hugely popular amongst our customers, many of whom deliberately plan their travel so that they can fly on  It,’’ Emirates president Tim Clark said recently. “ But we don’t rest on our laurels and continually invest to enhance our product so as to continue offering our customers the best possible inflight experience.

“Our frequent flyers will have noticed countless improvements onboard over the years, ranging from minor updates such as the addition of in-seat USB and HDMI ports, to bigger cabin overhauls where,  for instance,  we relocated the central overhead luggage bins to create a more spacious cabin on the upper deck, and when we introduced bigger and better inflight entertainment systems, amongst many other initiatives.’’

Despite the enthusiasm of Clark and Emirates for the A380, the big plane ’s future is clouded.

Even as it morphed from the A3XX to the 380, Boeing was casting doubts on the future of very large aircraft with predictions of an explosion of point-to-point flying using fuel-efficient twin-engine planes.

Read: Boeing predicts Airbus will not build all its A380 orders.

Confidence in the prediction wasn’t so high, however,  that it prevented the US manufacturer from modifying its venerable jumbo jet to produce the B747-8 but it was, in many cases,  correct.

Airbus continues to argue that the growth of mega-cities and increasing congestion means there remains a market for the A380 to efficiently transport passengers between slot-constrained airports.  Nonetheless, it announced in July it was cutting production in 2019 to eight aircraft a year from an already reduced 12.

READ: don’t discount the A380:Airbus.

While it is resisting an Emirates call for a re-engined A380neo, it introduced at the Paris Airshow a series of refinements it labeled the A380plus.

These include 4.7m (15.4ft) scimitar-like winglets to improve aerodynamic efficiency and an ability by carriers to add about 80 passengers or 300 nautical miles in range.

A380 decade service winglets
The A380plus winglets. Photo: AIrbus

The manufacturer said the winglets would produce a 4 percent fuel burn saving versus the current A380. It estimated an “optimized” cabin to carry up to 80 more passengers “with no compromise to comfort” would reduce seat costs by 13 percent.

However, the plan included an included 11-abreast economy seating at which even supporter Emirates balked because the person in the dreaded middle seat would have to climb over two people to get to the aisle.

The A380plus also features longer maintenance checks intervals and systems improvements to cut maintenance costs and increase aircraft availability.

READ: Airbus A380 package adds 80 seats.

Also under question is the second-hand market for the superjumbo as Singapore Airlines sends back four of the aircraft it leased up to a decade ago. One of the aircraft was recently photographed as a “white tail” devoid of livery.

While leasing company Dr. Peters continues to pursue options it has not ruled out breaking up the aircraft for parts.

Steve Creedy flew on the first A380 scheduled flight in 2007 as a guest of Singapore Airlines.