The A380, the ugly duckling compared to the Queen, also known as the 747. She has been grounded ever since the virus started and she’s becoming more and more ground ridden as airlines choose to retire her earlier and earlier. Just yesterday depending on where you are the final convoy of the fuselage rolled through France in preparation to get assembled. Now to look at what went wrong with the superjumbo we need to wind it back 50 years or so and that’s where today’s story begins.
1969, the year man first walked on the moon. It was a monumental year and it was the same year that a half-finished 747 rolled out the sheds to the awe of media and spectators from around the world. It was massive, 70m in length, a 59m wingspan and the most eyecatching feature? It had a hump. I should mention that the biggest aircraft Boeing had at the time wasn’t anything like the jumbo and it had increasingly become too small for the boom in air travel of the era. The 747 strived for decades with airlines, this was the jumbos heyday and they strived, transporting hundreds of millions of people across earth surface but then came the downfall and this is where you could say the A380’s troubles started, more than two decades before it was even introduced
In the early 1980s when Regan had just become president of the United States and Jonee Lynn Helms had just become president of the FAA, Helms had a US Navy background and you could say he knew what he wanted. Early in his time as president, he said “it’ll be a cold day in h*ll before I let twins fly long-haul over water routes”, this was in reference to ETOPS which limits airliners to how far they could fly away from a diversion airport due to past engine reliability issues. ETOPS is often comedically referred to as “Engines Run or Passengers Swim” and sure ETOPS approval had been given before but twins wanted to fly over the Atlantic and efficiently too. In 1985 under a new FAA president the first plane flew being allowed up to 120 minutes from a diversion airport it was previously 90min and Trans World Airlines flew the first-ever 120min flight with their new 767-200 across the Atlantic.
A couple of years later in 1989 Boeing released it’s new 747-400 airliner, it featured new winglets, more efficient engines and a larger hump. The airliner sold great, 694 of the type were sold all up but what was Airbus doing? They were working on their new A330 and A340, they were competing against Boeing’s up and coming 777, they already had the A310 as an admittedly weak competitor to the 767 but Airbus lacked something. A competitor to the 747-400. Sure that’s okay, no big deal, just create larger variants of the A340? Sounds good to me! 15 years later though, this decision would be one of the biggest mistakes I think they made
At the turn of the century, Airbus got thinking, they decided to build a jumbo but not just any jumbo, a super jumbo! By 2005 Airbus was ready, they revelled the largest passenger plane ever to the world, her two full double decks was the main feature. In 2007 the airliner operated her first commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney, it was a great success. Here’s the thing though, as much as the A380 fanfare was in full swing there was something even newer, something even more promising. Also in 2007, the 787 Dreamliner was unveiled to the world, this was a new type of jet, it had more efficient engines, was a lot lighter and nimble too. Airbus had made a massive mistake and even though they might not have known it yet the A380 would not be the 747, not even close
Airbus made the mistake of not bringing the superjumbo to the market earlier, it could have competed with the 747-400 and most likely would have won out overall with it’s increased floor space and sure a 1990’s A380 would have not been the A380 we know today but it could have been close. They misread the market and here’s what went wrong with the A380: the market wanted smaller more fuel-efficient jets, the A380 was the opposite. It could have also been too pricy and her four-engine configuration made her a gas guzzler. With the early success, the A380 might have been seen as a success but as time went on and ten-year-old A380’s were getting retired it was clear that Airbus messed up. Orders by the way really tell the story, 251 for the A380, 1,510 for the 787, it’s hard to argue with that. As bleak as this may be, it’s not the end, the market changes and we might just be seeing an old friend in a different form return to the French streets in decades, not centuries.
What do you think?
Is this the end? Now, yes. Forever? No. image credit