Why Emirates made the A380 work and everyone else failed (according to Emirates)

At peak Emirates will have operated 121 A380’s simultaneously.

The next largest fleet is Singapore Airlines at 19. Most fleets below that are in the 1-14 bracket.

CEO of Emirates, Sir Tim Clarke, blamed a lack of imagination and commitment on the airlines who just couldn’t make it work on Emirates scale, in a quite frank interview yesterday.

The Dubai Air Show starts today, so everyone someone is there frying in the heat.

He didn’t blame AirFrance for getting rid of theirs. He called anything less than Singapore’s fleet size “a sub-fleet” and said that operating as few as ten was a mechanical and financial nightmare. In Dubai you can’t mention next door Qatar with 10 they too are ditching.

Meanwhile Lufthansa is also going to wind down their fleet.

It was AirFrance Sir Tim lambasted most for their total lack of imagination. A first class offering that was and is more like a 1990’s business class, a business class that looks more like an average premium economy and a lousy economy class.

And that was his other reason on why Emirates were more successful: they had been more adventurous. Flagship seating and cabins, bars, showers, good quality economy. They made the A380 a desirable aircraft to fly on.

He lambasted British Airways for not making the most of the A380 at slot constricted Heathrow, implying that it was foolish not to have bought more than than the 12 they have.

And he might well have a point, but BA did try and buy more but couldn’t reach a price agreement with Airbus.

Having A380’s on a scale that Emirates has isn’t cheap – roughly $55 billion isn’t everyone’s idea of viable investments; state backing helped.

Emirates also had the advantage of government providing airports able to operate the vast airliner on a suitable scale too. No cheap investment by itself. Not one open to any of the European operators. Only Lufthansa had a purpose built pier at Frankfurt and that can only hold four and is almost 1km long.

Let’s not also forget Emirates “global centre” position. It is pretty much the geographical centre of the world. It makes it viable to operate as they do, from Birmingham BHX in the U.K. to DXB six to seven hours away. A 90 minute change of aircraft (and you do need the time to get off one and then walk up to 2km to the connection), and fly on to Sydney or elsewhere.

All three of the big ME airlines are utterly dependent on their geographic location for their success.

So yes, anyone would agree Emirates have made it work. But they’re in a unique position, with finances and geography that made it possible and viable.

And yes Western airlines – especially AirFrance could have done more to make the A380 a more thrilling experience, because it isn’t the best and never was.

But in the end there just weren’t enough of them to make them viable. Many of them were political decisions – especially AirFrance and Lufthansa who were lent on to buy it by the then Airbus owners – the French and German governments.

There was also another big shift in aviation still happening today as new A321LR and XLR’s come into service. In the coming weeks, SAS will join the club flying Copenhagen-Boston in an A321LR. Hub to spoke and Spoke to spoke have transformed the airline operating model, the 787 has driven it harder.

A380’s are hub to spoke at best, but work best on hub to hub flying. There will always be a market for that but not one that needs a double decker with four engines and a cost per kilometre that for most airlines, now just doesn’t add up.

I’m a huge fan of the A380, it’s not pretty but it’s an engineering masterpiece, a staggering human achievement. I never fail to stop and watch when the sound of the daily A380 on its way over into BHX 14 miles away triggers a skyward search around 1130am.

However, it’s not as nice as an A350 to fly in, it’s louder than a 787, and yet it’s cathedral like proportions never fail to impress.

As long as they’re viable, they make a valuable contribution to aviation. Sir Tim Clarke however, seems to have forgotten quite how impossible it would have been for anyone other than Emirates with its supportive autocratic government to have made it work.