The Demise of the A380

The Airbus A380 is an amazing airplane and an engineering marvel – it’s the largest commercial aircraft currently flying, able to carry up to 868 passengers in a one-class configuration (although the typical three-class configuration carries 544 passengers). The plane is quiet, it’s comfortable and passengers like it. It can reduce airport congestion, since one A380 with 544 passengers will require less airport footprint and fewer resources than the three A320s that would carry the same number of passengers.

And yet, Airbus announced this week that it will cease production of its flagship A380 in 2021, just 14 years after its first commercial flight in 2007. Contrast this with the Boeing 747, which flew its first commercial flight in January 1970 and is still in production (albeit now only as a freighter and as two new Special Air Mission/Air Force One aircraft to be delivered in 2024), giving it a production life of at least 54 years.

So, why the demise of the A380? There are a number of reasons, including the logistical difficulties associated with producing the aircraft’s components in four countries across Europe and transporting them for final assembly in Toulouse, France; the high cost of the aircraft (~$445 million); the limited number of airlines that have purchased it (only 16 have ordered, and only 13 fly); the high cost of modifying airport terminals to accommodate it; and the introduction of highly fuel-efficient aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350.

The A380 was designed to accommodate the hub-and-spoke model of air travel: fly large numbers of passengers to a central hub like London or Dubai, and then put those passengers on several smaller planes to their final destination. In contrast, aircraft like the 787 and A350 were designed more for point-to-point flights, making routes like Minneapolis to Lisbon financially viable. To be fair, the A380 was conceived before the 787, A350 and other, more fuel-efficient aircraft were available, but Airbus simply made the wrong decision about the future of air travel and was woefully optimistic in its forecasts: the company predicted in 2000 that 1,235 “very large aircraft” would be delivered from 2000 to 2019, but orders and deliveries of the A380 have been just 313 and 234, respectively, through last month. That’s a revenue miss of roughly $410 billion!

In my opinion, the A380’s demise boils down fundamentally to a single question: as a passenger, would you rather take one flight or two to get to your destination? Airbus seems to have answered that question with “two”, while a large proportion of the flying public and most airlines answered “one”.

In my own case, I would rather not make a connection through a large and busy airport if it’s at all possible to avoid it and I will go out of my way – and pay more – to take a flight without connections. I realize that many people will opt for cheaper, connecting flights, but they carry with them some fairly high costs: for example, a dated study commissioned by the FAA found that in 2010, missed connections cost passengers $1.5 billion each year.

The inconvenience of needing to make connections, as well as the lost productivity and opportunities that sometimes result, is not something that most business travelers, and many leisure travelers, are willing to accept. It’s one of the key reasons that we will see no new A380s produced after 2021.