It was billed as the jet that would rekindle the romance of air travel and fly us to the future. Fifteen years ago today, the world’s largest passenger airliner took to the skies. Singapore Airlines’ flight SQ380 – in honour of the double-decker Airbus A380 superjumbo – took off from Changi Airport and touched down in Sydney.
The A380 was the most technologically advanced jet since the Boeing 747 took to the skies in the 1970s and the most luxurious by (air) miles. It was an instant hit. Airlines queued up to buy it and make it their flagship.
Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Qantas added bars. Singapore boasted double beds for couples. Emirates and Etihad offered showers for first-class passengers. Etihad even created the Residence, a three-room suite that had a lounge, shower room and a bedroom, and came with its own Savoy-trained butler. It cost $22,000 from London to Abu Dhabi. One way.
But today the leviathan, whose 270ft-long wings were made in Wales, is headed for the scrapyard. Airbus handed over its last jet to Emirates in 2021 and closed the production line at its Toulouse factory. Air France, Malaysia Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Korean are dumping the jet. Singapore Airlines is reducing the size of its fleet. Airbus never even recouped the €25 billion development cost.
What went wrong? The most ambitious commercial airliner since Concorde proved too bold – and badly timed.
As the 747 approached the end of its life, Boeing’s arch rival, Airbus, thought it had spied an opportunity. Passengers, it reckoned, would welcome a new, even bigger double-decker. It thought airlines would stump up the thick end of $500 million for each jet because it would enable them to fly more customers in one go – the A380 carries up to 620 passengers, 200 more than a 747. That would prove particularly useful and profitable at congested airports, notably Heathrow.
Airbus got the passenger bit right. We love the A380 and many of us are prepared to pay more to board a jet that promises an “event” reminiscent of the Victorian days of the Grand Tour, when the rich took three-day Pullman trains from London to Venice and treated it as part of the fun. Alas, airlines – the real customer for the jet, not the passengers – fell out of love with “the big bird” pretty fast.
Falling out of love
The problem was the very thing Airbus regarded as its USP: its vast size. Getting a 500-tonne aircraft the height of a five-storey building into the sky and keeping it there requires four engines. This meant it simply cost too much to run, compared with newer twin-engine long-range jets, notably Airbus’s own A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that are made of lighter materials and have more modern, fuel-efficient engines.
It didn’t help that the oil price, which was $30-40 a barrel in the early 2000s when the A380 was developed, had risen to $80 by the time Singapore Airlines’ SQ380 took off. Worse, just as the superjumbo entered service, increased engine reliability and regulatory reforms meant twin-engine jets were certified to fly long distances across oceans – they used to have to stay within one hour of a safe landing point in case of engine failure.
Long-range versions of the A350 and the 787 can fly non-stop for 20 hours, long enough to carry passengers directly from London and New York to Sydney. Alan Joyce, the chief executive of Qantas, has said he could make more money per passenger flying two twin-engine jets between Australia and the US and Europe than a single A380.
But cost was not the only issue. Some carriers complained that the aircraft was too onerous to staff and turn around. An A380 requires more than 20 cabin crew, three or sometimes four pilots, and takes a minimum of two hours to unload, clean and re-load between flights.
Emirates’ British boss Sir Tim Clark was the only airline chief to stick with the superjumbo – buying 123. That’s because his airline’s business model is based on volume. Emirates flies the best part of 70 million passengers a year into Dubai on long-haul routes and lets them fan out on to shorter routes – what’s called the hub-and-spoke approach. The A380 is perfect for the long-haul routes, with smaller jets taking on the shorter hops. Other carriers prioritise point-to-point routes with no layover, for which the A350 and 787 are far better suited.
For a while it looked like Airbus had a solution – an A380 mk II, with a longer fuselage creating 120 more seats and more fuel-efficient engines to reduce the operating cost. Fabrice Bregier, then CEO of Airbus, told me it would go ahead when I interviewed him at the Paris Air Show in 2015.
He desperately wanted what he said to be true but by then most airlines had moved on to the A350 and the 787. He only mustered one customer for the proposed new jet – Emirates – and no aircraft manufacturer can afford to make a jet for one carrier. By the time the programme was axed, a mere 251 A380s had been made, one quarter of the number Airbus had hoped for. By contrast, Boeing made almost 1,600 747s.
The future of the superjumbo
What does the future hold for the get-there-fast-‘n’-ritzy classes? The A380 will gradually be replaced by the single-deck, twin-engine A350, the 787 and the new Boeing 777x, whose wings are so long that the tips fold up like on a fighter jet when the plane is on the ground.
But the good news is Emirates will carry on flying the A380 until 2035. Indeed, Clark is investing more than $1 billion to upgrade Emirates’ current 120-strong A380 fleet, notably adding a class-leading premium economy cabin. British Airways will keep its 12 A380s. Former critic Joyce has spiffed up Qantas’s A380s, with the addition of what he calls “a supper-club-style upper-deck lounge”. Translation: a bar in the nose cone where you can sit face to face.
What’s more, post-Covid delays in new jet deliveries, coupled with a spike in demand, mean that some airlines have actually reintroduced their stored A380s. Lufthansa and Qatar Airways are flying their superjumbos again. Many travellers consider the Qatar A380 to be the best in the sky, thanks to its vast bar and elegant first class. It also has the best economy class, a small 56-seat cabin with two loos on the upper deck. Book it while you can and head upstairs for one last hurrah on the clipper of the skies.