End of the line for the A380?
I’ve had lots of questions online and also recently from Kay Burley while we were waiting for the BOAC liveried 747-400 to arrive at Heathrow about the decision by Airbus to stop making the A380. So I thought I’d put down a few thoughts and points about my experience of flying the A380 and the decision which has been taken.
The A380 is, without doubt, the best airliner I have flown. From a pilot’s perspective it is without equal. It has the best and quietest flight deck, superb systems, an amazing level of redundancy in those systems, and is a beautiful aircraft to fly both through the automatics and manually via the side stick. I also believe it offers the best passenger experience of any aircraft flying today. It is quieter, smoother, more spacious, extremely popular with passengers, and rides turbulence better than anything else in the skies. So you would think all would be rosy for the aircraft’s future.
However, the A380 has a couple of problems. From a technical point of view there is the problem of physically fitting it in to airports. By this I don’t mean it’s weight, which per wheel is no higher than other large jets, but the wingspan does cause issues. Most airports around the world have been made with the 65m wingspan of the Boeing 747 in mind. The A380 has an 80m wingspan. This amazing and beautiful wing gives the A380 phenomenal performance in terms of lifting power, the ability to climb to high altitude far earlier in the flight than other large aircraft, and lower approach speeds than most jets regardless of size, which is why it almost appears to float towards the runway for landing. However, it does pose a problem when manoeuvring the A380 on the ground. Most airports only have a limited number of taxiways which are wide enough to take the A380. There are other technical issues such as the requirement for powerful push-back vehicles, provision of jetties which can access the upper and lower decks, and gate areas which can cope with the number of people waiting to board the 469 seater jet, amongst other practical and logistical issues which have to be considered when operating such a large aircraft.
The second, and more major problem in terms of airline ownership, is the cost of running this enormous aircraft. The A380 is a very economical aircraft to run with one proviso, it has to be full and/or be carrying high yield passengers to make money. An A380 will use approximately 125000 kg of fuel on a typical London to Los Angeles flight. This is a large number! However, if the aircraft is full it can make a good return for the airline and the passengers will have had a very comfortable, pleasant and relaxing flight. While we are operating in an economic climate which allows airlines to fill their A380s with passengers paying reasonable prices for their tickets everyone, airline executives and passengers alike, will be happy.
The problem for airlines is what happens when the inevitable economic downturn happens? These downturns always come along eventually during the 25 year lifespan of an airliner. This, in my opinion, is the A380’s Achilles’ heel and the reason most airlines have been reluctant to order the aircraft in large numbers. If you can’t fill an A380 flying it becomes an expensive, and quite possibly loss making exercise. The same is true for most aircraft, but due to its size the numbers involved with the A380 are proportionately higher than smaller airliners.
It also doesn’t have the flexibility of quick route structure changes which other, smaller aircraft have. It is a relatively simple task to switch from a Boeing 777 on a route to a smaller 787 if required. Airlines can’t just decide to start using their A380s on different routes due to the planning and potential infrastructure changes required at destination airports. There is significantly more planning required by all concerned once an airline decides to send an A380 to a new airport.
Additionally, the very latest large twin-engined aircraft being produced by Airbus and Boeing have taken some of the designs and techniques used in the manufacture of the A380, such as the use of lightweight and very strong composite materials, to the next level. Consequently, the A380 finds itself competing with it’s own parent company’s A350-1000 in the eyes of many airline executives. And in the majority of cases, unless there is a specific requirement to have the extra carrying capacity of the A380, the A350-1000 and/or new Boeing 777X are likely to win the order on economic and flexibility reasons.
These and other factors have lead to the decision by Airbus to stop manufacturing this incredible aircraft in 2021. On a personal level this is upsetting, as I know how wonderful the aircraft is to fly and how much the passengers I speak to every day find the aircraft fascinating, remarkable and comfortable in equal measure. I also hope British Airways can find a way to buy some more aircraft before the end of the production run, or maybe even tap into the second hand market as some airlines decide to remove the A380 from their fleets. But that is a personal wish and unfortunately I am not in the position to make those decisions. Indeed, even if I were, it may well be that the economics just wouldn’t work.
The good news is the A380 isn’t going to disappear any time soon. People will still be flying in these lovely aircraft for another 20 years or more. The A350 is a superb aircraft which incorporates many systems originally developed for the A380. I have no doubt Boeing’s new 777X will also be a fantastic aeroplane. But neither of them are the kinds of aircraft people stop what they are doing to watch. The 747 was probably the first airliner which people just looked at and held their breath when they saw the size of it and watched in wonderment as it somehow launched itself into the air. Concorde was similar with it’s unparalleled mix of beauty and raw power. The A380 was the next aircraft in this series. I will admit it doesn’t have the iconic shape of the “Queen Of The Skies” 747 or the sleek and distinctive lines of Concorde, but people do still stop and stare. They do still marvel at how over 560 tonnes of aircraft can appear to take off so effortlessly. And they are still amazed at the comfort level and peacefulness in the cabin. The A380 is going to be around for many years yet, and I am in the extremely fortunate position of being a Captain on the best airliner in the skies. If you haven’t experienced a flight on an A380 then try to make sure your next longhaul flight is on one. You won’t regret it.