The incredible history of the Airbus A380 superjumbo jet that went from airline status symbol to reject in just 10 years
- The Airbus A380 is the largest passenger plane in the world.
- The superjumbo has now been in service for 10 years.
- Airbus has booked 317 orders for the plane but is struggling to find new buyers.
- The A380 is too big, expensive, and inefficient for most operators.
- The future of the A380 remains uncertain.
In 2007, the Airbus A380 entered service to great fanfare. The gargantuan jet, dubbed the superjumbo, was designed to take everything that made the Boeing 747 an icon and push it to the limits of modern engineering.
A decade later, things are very different for the A380. What was supposed to be a game-changing aircraft is now fighting to survive.
With a price tag of $436 million, the A380 is one of the most expensive and lavish airplanes ever built. With room for as many as 800 passengers, the double-decker's sheer size means it's an occasion whenever a superjumbo arrives.
But in a cost-conscious market and with fluctuating fuel prices, the very attributes that made the plane stand out may have also doomed it. Some say the A380 came two decades too late, while others say that with increasing airport congestion, the plane is ahead of its time.
Regardless, no one can deny the engineering marvel of the aircraft. Here's a look at the topsy-turvy history of the Airbus A380 superjumbo
On April 27, 2005, at 10:30 a.m. local time, the first Airbus A380 prototype opened up the throttles of its four massive turbofan engines.
As the superjumbo took off from Airbus' facility in Toulouse, France, the largest commercial airliner around was actually flying.
But the A380's story starts decades earlier.
During the 1970s, Airbus' A300B was the new kid in the world of commercial airliners.
It spent the decade trying to break into a market dominated by the Boeing 747 jumbo jet.
The 747's size, performance, and efficiency helped lower operating costs for airlines enough to make air travel affordable for the masses.
By the early 1990s, Airbus was in a much different position. Its A320, which helped pioneer civilian fly-by-wire technology, was well on its way to becoming the second-best-selling jetliner in history.
At the same time, the company unveiled its new A330 ...
Reuters/Jean Philippe Arles
... and A340 family wide-body jets. Now, Airbus has set its sights on a bigger target ...
... the Boeing 747-400. Airbus wanted to produce an aircraft even bigger than Boeing's jumbo jet — with lower operating costs.
The result was a double-decker concept called the A3XX.
The A3XX would eventually morph into the A380 superjumbo.
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty
The A380 is built in a 1.6-million-square-foot assembly plant at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse.
Reuters/Jean Philippe Arles
At 239 feet long, 79 feet tall, and 262 feet from wingtip to wingtip, it's a big boy!
According to Airbus, in a typical four-class seating arrangement, the superjumbo can carry as many as 544 passengers, with a range of more than 9,400 miles.
Power for the A380 comes from of quartet of engines from Rolls-Royce or Engine Alliance.
The A380's flight crew operates from a state-of-the-art glass cockpit. Like all modern Airbus jets, the aircraft is flown using a side stick, with a fly-by-wire control system.
After its maiden flight, the A380 completed a flight-test program before entering commercial service in 2007.
As an airliner, the A380 promised luxury and comfort on an unprecedented scale.
The Airbus delivered. Premium features, such as walk-up bars ...
... private lounges ...
... and bathrooms with showers set the superjumbo apart from its rivals.
And then there are the first-class suites ...
... the even larger first-class suites ...
... and Etihad's The Residence.
It's a 125-square-foot flying home.
On October 15, 2007, Singapore Airlines took delivery of the first production A380.
Soon, other global airlines, such as Korean Air ...
AP/Airbus, C. Brinkmann
... Lufthansa ...
... Qantas ...
... British Airways ...
... Malaysia Airlines ...
... Thai Airways ...
... Air France ...
... Qatar Airways ...
... Asiana Airlines ...
... China Southern ...
... and Etihad took delivery of the plane.
But no customer is more important than Emirates and its CEO, Shiekh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
Of the 317 jets ordered, 142 have been by Emirates.
In fact, Emirates recently celebrated its 100th A380. No other airline operates more than 19 of the double-deckers.
Why does Emirates love the A380 so much, at a time when most of the airlines in the world have stayed away?
REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh
Emirates is a long-haul-only international airline. All its flights are routed into or out of its palatial hub in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
REUTERS/Jumana El Heloueh
As a result, Emirates needs an aircraft that can carry a lot of passengers for very long distances — a perfect job for the A380.
But few airlines use Emirates' strategy. These days, the trend in the industry is to offer direct flights using smaller long-range aircraft.
Instead of the hub-and-spoke route model, airlines have moved more toward point-to-point flying. This has allowed smaller, more efficient twinjets like the Boeing 777 ...
... and the Airbus A330 to become the dominant forces in long-haul flying.
Flickr/Tomás Del Coro
Smaller next-generation composite wide-bodies like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner offer airlines more flexibility and less risk. According to the CEO of Qantas, Alan Joyce, it costs less to operate two Dreamliners than it does to fly a single A380.
Benjamin Zhang/Business Insider
As a result, the A380 never developed into a true workhorse like the 747. Instead, it has been relegated to a niche aircraft economically feasible only on routes with heavy airport congestion.
Thus, new orders have been hard to come by. And early-production A380s will soon be coming off lease, meaning Airbus will have to compete with its secondhand planes.
The Boeing 747 is also struggling to survive, with sales of its passenger version all but dried up. Only the freighter version remains in production — at a rate of just one plane every two months.
Emirates' president, Sir Tim Clark, has for years pushed Airbus to make a more cost-effective version of the plane with upgraded aerodynamics and a new fuel-efficient engine called the A380neo.
Airbus has been reluctant to invest the kind of money needed to develop a new version of the A380. But earlier this year, Airbus offered its customers a moderately updated version of the plane, called the A380 Plus, with room for 80 more people and new winglets for better fuel economy. So far, there have been no takers.
Unlike with the Boeing 747, the A380 freighter never came to fruition, so Airbus won't be able to subsist on sales of cargo planes while it waits for passenger-plane sales to rebound.
In January 2018, Emirates placed an order for 20 additional A380s. The deal is set to keep the A380 production going into the next decade. For Airbus, its search for another superjumbo customer continues.
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