Recently, Emirates signed an impressive order for an additional 50 Airbus A380s and Amedeo (formerly Doric Leasing) ordered 20 of the mega-transports. These orders are enough to maintain A380 production for more than two years; they also breed false hope. Realistically, the program is probably limping toward its end point, unless a mid-life update is put in play and spurs new sales. But it looks unlikely that Toulouse could rapidly fund, for example, a “neo” derivative—a new engine option version that could further decrease direct operating costs as well as confirm the 550-seat long-range transport remains more attractive than the stretched-fuselage 777X.

We all tend to have short memories. In the late 1990s, when the A380—still dubbed A3XX—was a mere concept, Airbus tried hard to convince the airline industry of the need to consolidate long-haul routes and operate significantly bigger aircraft on megalopolis pairs. In the long term, this is the only way to avoid runway saturation and maintain smooth air traffic management, its executives asserted. Boeing replied that travelers—for business or leisure—if given the opportunity, would prefer nonstop services to more destinations. That is when the consolidation versus fragmentation debate began in earnest.

Boeing's economists and marketers were prescient. The first Very Large Aircraft (VLA), the Boeing 747, was conceived in Seattle and entered into service in 1970. Decades later, to counter the A380 at minimum cost, the 747 grew to become the reengined and enlarged 747-8, an attractive offering but one that achieved limited success. The numbers have remained almost unchanged since 1999-2000: Airbus claims more than 1,700 VLAs will enter service in two decades, Boeing believes the potential market is much smaller—700 aircraft at most, including 747-8s.

Revisiting these figures we see that since the program's inception, 14 years ago, Airbus secured orders for 324 A380s, nearly half for rapidly growing Emirates, a “sixth freedom” carrier with no home market and an incredibly savvy strategy. In other words, to any other carrier than Emirates, Airbus sold, at most, 164 A380s, which means Boeing's prediction has proved true.

Moreover, mainstream global airlines were initially ranked as strong VLA supporters. But gradually within the last few years a more cautious attitude has prevailed. Fifteen years ago, Air France, British Airways and Japan Airlines, for example, indicated they could put into service large numbers of mega-transports. This is no longer planned.

The worst-case scenario is still to come. Derivatives of long-haul twinjets such as the newly launched 777X can hold up to 400 seats and could be ranked as VLAs. The days of early Extended Twin Operations are gone; the reliability of next-generation engines is nearly perfect and the need for “quads” is dissipating. If the envisioned A380neo does not become a reality by the end of this decade, the European program could reach its premature limit, a sad epilogue.

When the A380 was greenlighted, Airbus claimed it would break even financially by the time the 250th aircraft was delivered. Years later, in the aftermath of the early production debacle, that figure has been adjusted to 500 needed to achieve profitably. But now, inexplicably, Airbus asserts the A380 will become profitable in 2015. However one counts, fragmented markets win.

Former Paris Bureau Chief Pierre Sparaco has covered aviation and aerospace since the 1960s.