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Aviation: A380 reaches the end of the line

The Airbus A380 program was officially cancelled today, signalling the end - in two years time - of a project that began back in the 1980s. In a head-to-head rivalry with Boeing, Airbus believed there would be a market for as many as 1,500 very large aircraft (VLA) with capacities of more than 500 passengers. In the end Airbus will deliver a mere 251 aircraft to customers.

On this monumental day for commercial aviation - a day when the VLA effectively becomes extinct - its worth looking back on the A380 program and highlighting what went right, what went wrong, and why.

Optimism in the face of adversity

The beheamoth was born in the hedonistic pre-9/11 era when traffic was growing, airports were becoming more congested, and there was a general belief that bigger was better. It came from forecasts that suggested unused landing and take off slots at major airports across the globe would become ever more rare or expensive, leaving airlines with little alternative but to hike capacity to deal with demand.

Airlines such as Air France have fallen out of love with their A380s. (The Aviation Oracle)

At that time Airbus was still an underdog compared to the mighty Boeing, but its executives believed it needed to offer an airliner in each range and size class in order to compete effectively. The program was formally launched in 2000 the double-deck A3XX became the A380.

Then came the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, which set the industry back around five years. Soon after traffic returned to more sustainable levels, Boeing started to explore an all new composite aircraft that became the 787. It tore up the long-haul rule-book, enabling airlines to offer direct point-to-point services between secondary cities and bypassing hubs. Meanwhile, the Boeing 777-300/ER (and later the Airbus A350-9) became alternatives to the A380, offering less capacity but improved efficiency.

The project wasn't helped by delays to initial deliveries. A great deal of time was lost when incompatibility between computer aided design systems delayed production. Then misplaced wiring needed to be reinstalled before in early aircraft were delivered, while a few years into service a costly wing reinforcement program had to be implemented.

Airbus claimed the A380 was 'greener' than competitors.

But airlines were only interested in profitability. (Garitzko)

It wasn't all bad news though. Passengers loved the A380, especially its capacious and extremely quiet cabins. Premium customers also found the idea of separate bars and even showers appealing.

Hubbing versus point-to-point

The A380 made sense at extremely congested airports such as London Heathrow and Dubai International and offered opportunities in markets where bilateral agreements limited frequencies.

The A380 is a good aircraft for large hubs, but its raison d'être has been eroded by smallers airliners that can fly direct. (Bill Abbott)

It enabled airlines to offer more seats without additional take-offs and landings. However, mega-hubs were starting to go out of fashion and bypass became a watchword. This new approach was supported by a continued appetite to build new airports and runways across the globe, along with the new generation of smaller jets that could fly long-distances non-stop. Airbus' potential customers began to realise that the A380 could be a money maker when it was full, as long as fares could be maintained. However, as soon as it became necessary to discount substantially to fill seats, it would actually be more profitable to maintain ticket prices and fly smaller 777s or A350s instead. Another challenge arose as many airfields required extensive upgrades to handle the Airbus double-decker. Some arports invested millions, while many others are still out of bounds for the A380. Crucially, the A380 also has limited space for cargo, which hurts the bottom line on some busy routes.

As hub-bypass became increasingly viable, the advantages offered by the A380 reduced. (ERIC SALARD)

Despite the challenges Airbus faced, even earlier this decade the A380 wasn't totally dead. The manufacturer saw a chance to upgrade it with newer and more efficient engines, or stretch the fuselage to make space for additional seats. But the manufacturer back-pedalled on the plans when it became apparent that few customers other than Emirates had an appetite for additional capacity, even if it came with improved efficiency. The forecasts suggested there simply wasn't enough demand to justify the huge expense of reworking the aircraft even though the A380's basic structure had been designed with a longer and heavier version in mind.

Orders from carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and Hong Kong Airlines fell by the wayside, while others such as Air France, Lufthansa and Qantas declined to take any more after their initial commitments were fulfilled. Singapore Airlines did agree to a top up of five, but ultimately retired its first few aircraft and its fleet remained at the same size. The lack of a strong after-market for the A380s retired was another nail in the coffin, as it undermined residual values and resulted in challenges raising finance for new builds.

Emirates dictates the future

Only Emirates remained loyal. Most of its fleet are powered by Engine Alliance GP7000 turbofans but it subsequently switched to the rival Rolls-Royce Trent 900. Unfortunately improvements to the RR engine did not go far enough and it suffered from performance degradation in Dubai's sandy environment, leading to increased off-wing time for repairs. With a limited customer base, the engine manufacturer backed off from further costly improvement programs and was reputedly paying Emirates substantial compensation.

The final impasse came when Emirates needed to firm up its final tranche of A380s. Engine Alliance was out of the game and Rolls-Royce couldn't deliver what the airline demanded, but the order was conditional until power plants were selected.

Emirates made the A380, and ultimately brought about its demise. (Lars Steffens)

Airbus hoped to sustain production at a rate of six a year until the middle of the next decade a new engine would become available and could enable an A380neo. But the backlog of deliveries was reducing and with only three A380s to deliver to All Nippon Airways, the program became dependent on Emirates.

The Middle Eastern carrier is itself facing challenges. Its base at Dubai International is full and there is little sign of a move to the city's new airport, Dubai World Central. In addition the hub bypass model enabled by Boeing 787s and more recently by Airbus A321LRs, along with challenges from alternative hubs in Addis Ababa and Istanbul, was putting pressure on Emirates' business model. In the end, the carrier's move to smaller and more efficient A330s and A350s, flying alongside upgraded Boeing 777-8s and -9s, became inevitable.

What next?

The writing had been on the wall for most of the second half of the decade, but now Airbus has succumbed to a pressure to end the costs associated with the A380 project. The VLA market is now pretty much dead - Boeing has stated that it does not expect to sell any more 747-8i passenger aircraft, and its 777X offers significantly less capacity than an A380s.

The smaller A350 is well positioned to capture orders for 777-300/ER replacements that are likely to emerge in the middle of the next decade, especially from operators that do not wish to step up to the larger 777X. But the cancellation of the A380 program leaves the European manufacturer without a match for the new Boeing at the top end of the capacity / range curve. This in itself might not be a major proble, as the trend towards downsizing in the long-haul continues.

However, it has recently been reported that Airbus and Rolls-Royce are working on an A350 powered by a new engine named Ultrafan. The manufacturer claims the geared turbofan will burn 25% less fuel than first-generation Trent engines, and may offer as much as a 10% reduction in burn over the current Trent XWB powering the A350. The engine will run for the first time in 2021 and could be ready for service in 2025. The Ultrafan’s reduced fuel burn and greater thrust could form the basis for a more efficient and longer-ranged derivative of the A350. It would also enable a stretch, sometimes referred to as the A350-1100 or A350-2000, that is likely to beat the 777X for both efficiency and capacity. Cancellation of the A380 program frees up Airbus' designers and manufacturing capacity for other projects. So while Boeing currently has the top end of the market to itself again, it may not retain that status for long.

Love at first flight

It is a little ironic that on the same day most of the world celebrates love. Airbus chose to end production of an aircraft it once marketed with the slogan 'Love at first flight'.

The 'love at first flight' didn't last. (John5199)

In the end, there was very little love from the airlines. Singapore Airlines has already retired five A380s, and Emirates is likely to start parking its early examples next year as 777-9 deliveries get underway. Meanwhile, Air France will hand back three of its ten to their owners as leases expire over the next two years. Qatar Airways CEO has said his airline plans to retire its A380s after ten years service, starting in 2024.

There has been very little interest in used A380s to date. Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly has taken one which it claims it is using successfully, and it may take another. International Airlines Group chief exec Willie Walsh has said he'd like more for British Airways, but refurbishment of second-hand example's to the airline's spec will be extremely expensive. Its likely then that A380s will start to pile up in the desert storage yard over the next few years.

A few airlines will need A380s for the foreseeable future to address slot limitations. The retirees will supply spare parts that will help keep the in-service fleet alive.

Most A380s will end up being scrapped after they are retired by front line airlines. (Tarmac Aerosave)

But with front-line lifetimes measuring between ten and 12 years, it seems likely that even the 2021-build A380s will go by the mid-2030s. Will there be a totally new double-decker, four-engined airliner in service by then? It seems unlikely at the moment.

The A380 was arguably a vain attempt by Airbus to move into the VLA space that had been totally occupied by the Boeing 747. It was a triumph of industrial development, founded on misguided forecasts of ever-increasing traffic between large cities. When the production line finally closes 251 A380s will have been handed over to airline customers - one more than the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar which was another technically excellent but ill-fated widebody.

Flying in an A380 is an excellent experience, but it is likely to be just a memory in less than 20 years time. The future is smaller airliners with less space - and that will come as a disappointment to many travellers.

Text © The Aviation Oracle

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