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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.