The last A380 – the end of an aviation dream that didn’t last

Photo by Jean-Luc LaGarde – the last Emirates A380 rolled out of the factory. Behind it sits ANA’s deferred delivery Orange Flying Honnu A380

The A380 was conceived as a means of flying as many people as possible in up to four classes, between the worlds major hub airports. With airport space shrinking, slot constraints and passenger numbers ever growing, it seemed like a truly good idea. The 747 had proved it was essentially viable because it did basically the same thing.

From the start Airbus suggested all sorts of optional amenities from bars to gyms and on board showers. Other than the gym – whose equipment was simply to heavy to justify, most of the exotic suggestions proffered ended up in an A380 at one time or another.

The point about an A380 is its passenger capacity. Airbus envisioned as many as 800 passengers. Indeed one version recently came to light where they’d managed to fit as many as 932 economy seats in.

But that’s not what airlines did. In fact for the most part they went in the opposite direction.

A reasonable two class A380 Emirates flies is around 615 passengers, the sort they use on routes to Asia, where first class doesn’t sell and business seating is reduced.

British Airways A380’s are fitted with just 420 seats, because the airline, even more than most, saw first, business and premium economy as the source of profit, minimising economy seating.

Even the AirFrance A380’s totalled just 516, Lufthansa’s 509, Korean Air has just 407.

Qatar operates 517 seats but is very economy heavy. Etihad operates 498 seats including two of the butler serviced suites. Asiana 495, China Southern 506.

Qantas has two configurations stored on its 12 aircraft, the earlier versions with 484 seats and the later refit with 485.

Malaysia Airlines 494 seat A380’s were often suggested, after withdrawal to the Haj pilgrim market, to be fitted with as many as 800 economy, but it never happened and they retain the 494 seats.

Thai operate 517 seats. ANA flies a four class 520 seat (and is the only other airline waiting to take delivery of an A380, the third is finished but deferred into late 2021).

Singapore Airlines the original operator with the second largest fleet, and the first to retire and replace its early aircraft, has three configurations. One of 441, one of 379 (London Heathrow use mostly), and the latest aircraft at 474.

The 379 seat configuration is the lowest installed on any A380. Only Skymark came close with 388 on its one built but never delivered aircraft. All three of that order were eventually reconfigured and bought by Emirates.

Emirates itself has a number of configurations, splitting the markets they operate to. Most have 14 first and 76 business but variable economy, some have high economy and just 58 business. The plan was to introduce premium economy in 2022 which would have changed them further but none have fewer than 500 seats, the most 615.

None of the seating arrangements, except perhaps the 600+ on a handful of Emirates, ever really met what the designers originally envisioned.

The A380 like the 747 before it, was seen as the next stage in the democratisation of air travel, providing vast numbers of cheap seats to an ever growing number of travellers.

That’s not how things panned out. That cheap seat phenomenon has yet to be provided on long haul. Many try it, but the realities of taxation, and basic operating costs have made it largely unreachable except as a launch gimmick.

Malaysia took delivery of the 100th A380

What perhaps made the A380 really unviable, was the airlines themselves. They expected a profitable return, but few of them found the magic mix of configuration, load factor and the routes to fly on to sustain that load, and the profit margin that made them work.

The cost of the aircraft to buy, their operating costs on top of that, the low reliability of the Engine Alliance power especially, all worked to make small fleets unviable. Malaysia was the first to give up. Thai and Asiana, both struggle to make their 6 fleet aircraft viable. China Southern has just 5 and ANA’s case is totally unique.

You can just make out the Skymark logo in the tail but it already has Emirates engines

Forced into buying three A380’s over the Skymark bankruptcy, ANA will operate the aircraft on just one route, Tokyo-Hawaii, for which they have been uniquely configured.

Only Singapore Airlines with its premium service, premium destination and premium routes really made it work amongst the smaller airlines. They were the only other airline to order more.

Emirates however did, and do, simply by operating so many, on so many routes. Their transfer hub and spoke model is utterly unique, although Qatar has tried to duplicate it, Etihad failed. It relies on geographical position. Dubai, is in effect the centre of the African, Eurasian and Australasian continents. Some 75% of the worlds population is within range of an A380 operating out of Dubai.

For AirFrance (and to a lesser extent Lufthansa), the purchase of A380’s was as much for domestic and political reasons. They struggled to ever make them truly viable on routes that would make money. The engines were a continuously tedious issue, culminating it the potential loss of an aircraft over Greenland. The cause has only just been revealed after years of investigation and an expedition to dig the parts out of the Greenlandic ice.

Qantas has had success with the A380, it has certain routes – London especially that were viable, but they were always touch and go. They made enough to justify them but not enough to thrill the accountants.

Qantas plans to return A380’s to operation in 2023. I remain unconvinced they’ll ever be back.

Lufthansa had a similar issue. For them, along with AirFrance, both had a hard time making them viable in the winter months. Frequent were the stories of half empty A380’s on the Johannesburg run in January out of Frankfurt.

And the realities came home to Qatar as well. Ten aircraft wasn’t viable, and even before Covid they’d made the decision to exit their A380’s by 2024.

AirFrance looked at the cost of refurbishing theirs, which they had never done. A nearly half billion dollar bill persuaded them out of it.

Lufthansa had redeployed its aircraft, splitting them to Munich, and had embarked on a repaint and refurbish, it had already rolled out premium economy, which sold well. Like Qantas, Lufthansa could cover the costs of the aircraft but they weren’t making a fortune. And that’s the real issue with the A380. It’s costs were just too close to its operating profit. One tiny change in fortunes, and they slipped quickly into the red.

As HiFly have found and admitted – its great if you can fly between A380 equipped airports, especially if they have the full catering truck facilities for the upper decks, and twin deck terminals to get everyone on and off in good time. But go to a half-equipped airport where they might have the gate but not the support systems, it gets less viable. Go where they don’t even have a gate, and the costs of handling the aircraft soar, to the point they become unviable. It’s simply to big to go just anywhere.

A stretched A380-900 and a freighter were both planned. It’s wings were designed for both. The freighters for FedEx were cancelled and the -900 simply never saw the light of day. Neither did the last gasp A380neo Airbus tried to sell to Emirates in 2017-18.

Only one A380 was ever ordered as a private jet. It was sold on by the buyer before it was ever built. In the end it never was. I often think there’s something in that. Arab billionaire princes are legendary for excess and being able to afford anything. Big jets are a status symbol. The 748i is popular as was the 747. But not one could afford an A380.

So while the A380 flies on probably into the mid-2030’s in ever decreasing numbers, the first is already scrap. I have a piece of it here in front of me. It sits next to a press and PR launch gift 1/400 of the very same aircraft on its maiden commercial flight between Singapore and Sydney back in 2007. Who would have thought that dream wouldn’t last even 13 years?