Summer 2023 will see a somewhat surprising return to the skies. The Airbus A380, which was not so long ago essentially written off for dead, is making a comeback.
Thanks in part to the aviation industry’s various woes, over 70% of the original A380 operators plan to put the world’s largest passenger plane back into service this year. The A380 will still be flying on borrowed time though, as Airbus announced back in 2019 that it would no longer produce the quad-jets. The final A380 was delivered to Emirates in December 2021.
With the world’s first full double-deck jet airline set for “an Indian summer”, it’s worth taking a look at the rise, fall and (temporary, at least) resurrection of the iconic aircraft.
When the Boeing 747 entered service in January 1970 as the world’s largest jet airliner, it gave the American manufacturer a stranglehold on the large aircraft market that it would hold for most of the next four decades.
Airbus first announced plans to challenge the 747 in 1990. The Toulouse-based manufacturer formally presented its double-decker concept in 1994, originally referring to it as A3XX. Six years later, in December 2000, the project was officially launched with a roughly €9 billion budget and a new name: the A380. The name was chosen because the number "8" not only symbolized the plane's cross-sectional shape but also held cultural significance as a lucky number in several Asian cultures. Six customers were part of the launch, with a combined total of 50 orders.
Following five additional years of development, the first A380 prototype was unveiled in January 2005 and a maiden test flight took place on 27 April 2005. An initial test transatlantic flight happened the following year but various delays meant that the first commercial flight wasn’t until Singapore Airlines made history in October 2007 by flying the A380 from Singapore to Sydney – a flight greeted with great fanfare.
That aviation enthusiasts were willing to auction their way onto that maiden flight shouldn’t be surprising. When the A380 was introduced, it was like nothing else on the market. The double-decker has a typical seating for 525 passengers but can accommodate as many as 853.
The sheer size of the A380 makes it a remarkable feat of engineering. The A380’s nearly 80 metre (262 feet) wingspan is 15 metres longer than that of the 747 and its empty weight of 285,000 kilogrammes (628,000 pounds) is around 50 percent heavier than its Boeing competitor. The A380 is so big, in fact, that many airports are unable to accommodate it. Of those that are, many had to build additional infrastructure to handle it.
The A380 promised to change the way people travelled, offering a new level of comfort and luxury. The aircraft boasts state-of-the-art avionics, a spacious and quieter-than-normal cabin and comfortable seating. Some airlines even offer swanky first-class private suites, shower spas and fancy onboard lounges.
For the reasons listed above, some travellers claim the A380 offers an unparalleled flying experience. But while it might thrill individual flyers, many airlines discovered that getting 500-600 people to board each A380 flight was no easy task.
With the aircraft’s high operating costs, not to mention its roughly $446 million sticker price, airlines need those seats filled in order for the A380 to be profitable. And with not all airports even able to accommodate the A380’s massive size, its routes are naturally limited.
The A380’s high operating costs are primarily driven by the fuel consumption of its four turbofan engines. According to estimates, the A380 had an hourly operating cost of more than $26,000 as of 2015 – $17,467 of which goes to fuel.
The A380 also represented a big bet on the part of Airbus on the hub-and-spoke system, in which large numbers of passengers would take packed superjumbos to busy hubs before flying to their final destination on smaller planes. However, as the fuel efficiency of smaller, twin-engine aircraft improved and more low-cost carriers entered the market, the hub and spoke model began to fall out of favour.
The high operating costs and wider changes in the industry made it difficult for Airbus to attract customers to the A380 – with one major exception.
Emirates has the world’s largest A380 fleet, with 85 in service and another 36 in storage as of February 2023. Only 12 other airlines own A380s, and none come close to the size of the Emirates fleet. There were 132 A380s in service worldwide as of February 2023 – 64 percent of those belonging to Emirates. The second-largest fleet is Singapore Airlines’ 15 A380s, one-third of which are in storage.
With Emirates the only airline ordering A380s – and the only one that was able to crack the code to profitability – the Dubai-based airlines held enormous sway over the future of the jumbojet.
When 2019 talks between Airbus and Emirates resulted in the airline reducing its total number of A380s and opting for the smaller A350 instead, it was essentially a deathblow for the iconic model.
Airbus officially ended the A380 programme in February 2019. Then-CEO Tom Enders called the decision “painful” but said the company had “no basis to sustain production” of the aircraft.
Roughly one year after that announcement, the entire aviation industry was crippled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Long-haul international flights, the wheelhouse of the A380, suffered the biggest blow. As airline after airline put their A380s in storage, the aircraft became “one of the biggest casualties of the pandemic in terms of aviation”.
Air France announced it was speeding up its existing plans to retire its A380s and when jet fuel prices reached all-time highs following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed likely that other airlines would follow suit. At the very least, it looked like they’d be in no rush to bring their A380s back into service.
But just months after it looked like the A380 would fall victim to the pandemic, another sector-wide challenge has given it a new lease on life. With ongoing supply chain issues putting a strain on aircraft capacity and falling jet fuel prices altering the profitability equation, at least ten airlines have said they will bring their A380s back into service for the summer 2023 travel season.