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Emirates is planned to take delivery of its last two Airbus A380s in the coming weeks.
The occasion also marks the end of production for the type after a run of only 14 years and 251 aircraft. Airbus overall lost multiple billions on a program that it once hoped would help it take over the lead from Boeing in commercial aviation. While that success was achieved anyway, the A380 only made it much harder.
The relatively short history of the A380 is full of drama. In a historic mishap, Airbus found out during assembly of the first aircraft that certain cables were too short, resulting in a delay of almost two years and billions in extra costs. Then there was the 2010 Qantas Flight 32 incident, the closest any A380 has got to a serious accident. The flight itself was dramatic, but it also demonstrated the resilience of the aircraft’s systems and how redundancy worked. During repairs of the aircraft, small wing cracks unrelated to this particular flight were found, forcing Airbus into an expensive redesign. The years of effort to try and sell the huge aircraft ended in the realization that it was better to terminate the program.
Behind the drama, there are some key factors as to why the program failed prematurely. To start with, Airbus was building a large four-engined aircraft when the other model in that segment, the Boeing 747, was already in decline. Smaller twins, particularly the Boeing 777, were already becoming a success. Airbus was chasing the wrong target. Then there was the fundamental problem with its design: engineers designed the A380-800 with the stretched -900 already in mind. That is one reason, among others, why the aircraft has this huge wing that gives it exceptional range, but also makes it heavier than it would have been had it been optimized for its size. The same is true for other parts of the aircraft, such as the tail.
Secondly, the engines: Shortly after the A380 was launched, new engines were made available from both General Electric and Rolls-Royce for the Boeing 787. Later, Rolls-Royce also developed new engines for the A350. John Leahy, Airbus’ former chief salesman, remembers. “Airbus was blindsided by the engine manufacturers in the year 2000 when we were getting ready to launch it,” he recalled. “Our program people had assurances by the engine OEMs that there was nothing on the horizon with better specific fuel consumption (SFC) for years to come. And three years later, when we had not even delivered the first aircraft, GE and Rolls had engines with 15% better SFCs that they were bringing out for the 787. That left Airbus at a commercial disadvantage, which was very unfortunate.”
Clark says for Emirates the math worked better: In the good years after the global financial crisis, 80% of the airline’s profits came from the A380 operation. And if it equipped its two-class A380s with 670 seats—instead of the 617 it has—for space standards equivalent to those of the 787 and A350, the A380’s unit costs would still be lower. Emirates still needs to fill the aircraft, though.
Another serious problem for the program was timing. The delay caused by the wiring debacle meant that series production was ready to be ramped up in earnest just when the global financial crisis unfolded. Instead of expanding output, Airbus had to throttle back. Even in the recovery, the appetite for the aircraft remained low, particularly since the 787 and A350 were by then emerging strongly. Talks to stretch, redesign or reengine the aircraft remained unsuccessful for years.
Emirates in 2018 tentatively agreed to another follow-up order that helped save the program at the time but changed its mind a year later. Clark says the airline determined 120 aircraft were the “optimal fleet size.” In other words, even Emirates did not want more. The fate of the A380 was sealed.