A380: Rest in Peace?

It started off as the modern day replacement for the Boeing 747, but somewhere along the way, things went quite wrong.

The past couple of weeks have been disastrous for the Airbus A380, the superjumbo that took to the skies as the potential replacement for the Boeing 747. While the Boeing 747 celebrates its 50th birthday, it looks like its curtains already for the A380.

The A380 programme was, as you may remember, in trouble when Emirates failed to place a much expected order at the last Dubai Airshow. The dismay at Airbus was apparent and it was evident that if the EK order didn’t come through, the A380 programme would be cancelled. After negotiations, EK did finally place the life-saving order for the superjumbo, extending the programme’s life by another 10 years or so, but now it seems that the order is in jeopardy.

While nothing has been officially disclosed, we know that Airbus and Emirates are in talks about the A380 order, as Emirates continues to shake up its order book. The 787 order from Boeing also seems to be in turmoil, but that’s a discussion for another day. Qantas has also formally cancelled its order for additional A380s. So what happened?

Some say that the A380 was designed for the airline that practically bankrolled the programme from the very beginning – Emirates. Dubai International Airport was a bottleneck for millions of passengers and the airline needed a large plane to move passengers quickly to destinations with large loads. But as the world of aviation changed, aircraft like the 787 and the A350, offering superior economy and lower costs per seat-mile started to look more favourable. A new, massive airport in Dubai also promises to resolve the bottle neck issues that Emirates had been facing. And perhaps, too many A380s taking off with too many empty seats also had something to do with it.

The A380 had been removed from many key routes, replaced by the 777s – like Dallas. With load factors not quite what they used to be, its no surprise that Emirates is realising that the A380 is bit too big for what the future of aviation looks like. Emirates’ expected formal merger with FlyDubai will also give them a fantastic narrow body fleet, which they can use routes where they are currently forced to use half empty 777s. The induction of the 787 (or the A350 or A330neo, depending on how the chips fall) followed by the the new 777-9, will also make for a smarter, more fuel efficient and more seat efficient fleet. The A380 has effectively been elbowed out by the twin jets.

Interestingly, the 777s and 787s are also blamed for the lacklustre sales performance of the 747-8i. The twin jets simply have more to offer to airlines that the larger aircraft and Boeing has been struggling to get orders for the 747-8i, while orders for the 787s just won’t stop coming.

It is sad that the age of large aircraft seems to be over. In another 10 or 15 years, it is quite conceivable that we won’t be seeing any more 4-engined aircraft. The skies will be ruled by 777s and 787s, or their younger sibling, the 737. On the European side, we’ll have the A330s, A350s and their young siblings, the A320 family and the A220 family. To be up-close and personal with an A380 is an awe-inspiring experience. Its shape seems to enhance its sheer size and to imagine or to see an A380 take off is truly an experience. A great lumbering giant, taking to the sky in an incredible exercise of sheer physics. I’ve admired the technology of the A380 and the comfort it offers, but I never really cared for its looks (specially compared to the 747). But all the same, it’s sad to think that soon, there will be no new A380s being delivered.

For those who haven’t flown on one, you’ve got to give it a try. And although Emirates might be cancelling orders for new A380s, considering how many they have, your best bet to fly on one will probably be with Emirates!


By Hassan Ansari