Winning passengers’ hearts may not be enough for the Airbus A380

February 01, 2019
A380 wake turblence Sydney Airport
Photo: James Morgan.

It was 2007 when the first Airbus A380 to enter revenue service rumbled down the runway in seeming slow-motion.

The October 25 Singapore Airlines 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.

The carnival atmosphere was in stark contrast to the pall that hangs over the ambitious aircraft less than 12 years later as its future apparently hangs once more in the balance.

READ:  A380 future in doubt as Emirates and Airbus talk.

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

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.

Emirates A380 program threat
The original Singapore first class. Photo: Singapore Airlines

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 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 had begun 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.

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

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

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 —  the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350 — which could potentially beat the A380 on the cost of taking passengers each mile.

READ: Technology flies past the A380 superjumbo

It was these aircraft that would ultimately undermine the superjumbo as carriers used them to open new routes and bypass the congested hubs the A380 was designed to serve.

Another problem would prove to be the lack of secondary market: airlines willing to take on second-hand A380s are few and far between and one of the big planes has already been broken up for parts after it came off lease with Singapore.

A decade on, two of the three superjumbo pioneers had 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.

It was left to Emirates to power on as the world’s biggest operator of A380s.

It 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.

“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 at the time.

“ 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.

A380 ordrer cancelled
Emirates president Tim Clark aboard an A380.

“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 has been clouded for several years.

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.

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 2017  it was cutting production in 2019 to eight aircraft a year from an already reduced 12.

While resisting an Emirates call for a re-engined A380neo, it also attempted to spruce up its offering and introduced a series of refinements it labeled the A380plus.

These included 4.7m (15.4ft) scimitar-like winglets to improve aerodynamic efficiency and the 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 burns 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 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 featured longer maintenance checks intervals and systems improvements to cut maintenance costs and increase aircraft availability.

The move failed to significantly boost the plane’s fortunes and it eventually reached the point where Airbus was dependent on further Emirates’ orders to keep production going.

A tense impasse was seemingly resolved at the start of 2018 when Emirates announced it would buy up to 36 of the double-decker planes.

The deal, valued at $US16 billion at list prices, was for 20 firm orders and 16 options to be delivered from 2020.

Including its existing backlog, the new order brought Emirates’ total commitment to the A380 program to 178 aircraft worth more than $US60 billion.

Airbus Commercial Aircraft president Fabrice Bregier said the manufacturer had determined it could keep production going with as few as six aircraft a year for a decade.

Then head salesman John Leahy said: “This new order underscores Airbus’ commitment to produce the A380 at least for another ten years.

“I’m personally convinced more orders will follow Emirates’ example and that this great aircraft will be built well into the 2030s.”

Now that crucial deal appears to be in danger and with it the future of the A380 program.