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The Airbus A380 Super Jumbo Part 1

The amazing new double decker plane
 

Emirates was the first airline to sign up for the revolutionary new A380, and now has 58 on order, making it the largest single customer for the plane.

Part 1 of a four part series on the Airbus A380 - please also visit

1.  Airbus A380 antecedents

2.  Differing plans for a 747 successor

3.  A380 completion, configuration, and controversy

4.  Inside an Emirates A380

 

 

 

Between the Wright brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and today,  there have only been a few massively transforming moments in passenger airplane design.  Arguably, these might feature such things as the DC-3, bringing reliable air travel to the masses, the first ever jet, the 707, and the 747 which introduced a new era of affordable air travel for everyone.

One more defining moment is surely the Airbus A380 - the biggest passenger plane ever, with two full passenger decks, and also marking a turnaround from squashing more seats ever more uncomfortably into a metal tube, offering more space per passenger, and an improved flying experience.

As clearly wonderful as this plane is, it almost didn't get built, and it represents the culmination of more than a decade of concepts and designs from both Boeing and Airbus, some outrageously innovative, and others boringly derivative.

The long wait is now over, and the final result clearly shows the care and thought that went into developing this amazing new plane.

Background to the Airbus A380

The Airbus A380 didn't just spring into being, unexpected and unannounced.  It represents the culmination of years of discussion and research by both Boeing and Airbus, and is held either to be a wise or very stupid move on Airbus' part.

Probably no other category of airplane has been so widely debated, prior to its launch, as has the successor to the Boeing 747 jumbo jet.  The history that precedes the A380 makes for interesting and relevant reading, accordingly.

Please keep reading - we'll get to the A380 soon enough.  However, to understand the history and development of the A380 it is necessary first to talk at length about Boeing's 747.

Boeing's 747

Boeing's 747 'jumbo jet' first took to the skies on 9 Feb, 1969, and was first operated commercially, by Pan Am, on 21 Jan, 1970.

These days, with the 747 commonplace (over 1500 have been sold) and other planes getting closer and closer to it in size, it is hard to remember how, at the time the 747 appeared, it was such a mammoth step forward in terms of size from the planes that had flown before it.

The previously largest passenger plane was the 12 year old 707.  In comparison, the 747 weighed more than double the 707 and carried more than twice as many passengers.  It was, at the same time, both a huge leap forward in size and capabilities, but also almost an 'inevitable' continuation of what had been, until then, a steady trend towards ever bigger and better planes.

But since the 747's release, development seemed to slow, and while Boeing successively tweaked the 747 design, enhancing the 747-100 with a 747-200 then -300 then -400 model, each time making it slightly bigger and giving it slightly longer range, the forward momentum of aircraft design seemed to stall.

For some 30 years, Boeing's 747 reigned supreme as the 'biggest and the best' airplane in the skies, and the complete lack of competition allowed Boeing to enjoy large profit margins on 747 sales and to strategically pick up airline customers that had almost no choice but to buy the 747 if they needed the capabilities of that plane.

The 747's supremacy starts to fade

As the years since the 747 release stretched into decades, Boeing found itself in an interesting situation - while the 747 design was aging, Boeing had no compelling financial incentive to update it with a completely new aircraft, which would probably require a $10 - $15 billion investment.  As long as the 747 had no competitors, Boeing was content to (in marketing terms) 'milk its cash cow' for all it was worth.

Boeing wanted to protect its position, and didn't want to encourage Airbus to develop a competitor to the 747, and it did this variously by decrying the need for a successor to the 747 and/or claiming that it was going to build a successor itself, while opining to all who cared to listen that there weren't enough potential sales of a super jumbo to support two competing planes.

As the years passed, the gap between the 747 and its closest competitors started to close, with both new Boeing planes and Airbus planes offering increasing seat capacities, and sometimes longer range and better fuel economy.  Competition was appearing - not in the form of a bigger, better plane, but rather in the form of smaller (but nearly as big) and better planes - typically better in the sense of longer range or lower operating costs or more versatile application to different airline routes.

Airplanes are often compared on the basis of their passenger capacities.  But it is hard to state exactly the number of seats in a 747 because this depends on at least two variables - simplistically, how close together the seats are spaced, and what the mix of first class, business class and coach class seats is.  Clearly, a first class lie-flat sleeper seat takes up a great deal more space than a narrow coach class seat.

But, to give a feeling of scale, in typical three class configurations, a current model 747-400 holds between 358 - 416 passengers, and a two class configuration (only business and coach class) holds about 450 - 524 passengers.  The planes have a typical range of about 7200 - 8000 miles.

Compare this with Boeing's 777 which can hold about 368 passengers in three classes or 451 in two classes, and which can offer a range up to an incredible 10,800 miles, or an Airbus A340 with 380/419 passengers and a range of 8860 miles, and it can be clearly seen that the 747 no longer has much of an advantage in terms of passenger capacity or range.

And so, the commanding presence and large part of the market that the 747 dominated grew smaller and smaller, and by the late 1990s, new orders for passenger versions of the 747 had all but dried up completely.

None of this happened overnight, but rather evolved very slowly over the decades since the 747 project was first commenced in 1965.  Initially, development was in the form of adding to the base 747 design, but after the 747-400 series (development started in 1985 and the first plane flew in 1989) the concept of an entirely new plane became more popular.

The need for a successor to the 747

No plane bought long haul air travel to the masses like the 747 did.  The 747 transformed the economics of long distance air travel, making it affordable for normal people to travel internationally, something that formerly had been the preserve only of the affluent.

The 747's reliability further encouraged the growth of air travel, and this growth in air travel helped to pull new model smaller planes into production too, allowing for a broader range of airplane solutions to be deployed by airlines.

Air travel grew at a rapid pace, and much faster than the development of the infrastructure needed to handle the increased air traffic.  Both air traffic control and airport capacity increasingly became overwhelmed at some congested key cities and airports (eg Chicago, New York, and London).

Operational choice :  high density hub flights or smaller direct flights

However, the growth in air traffic also gave the airlines an interesting choice of solutions.  Up to a certain point, the increasing numbers of passengers were handled by simply adding more flights, but with congestion issues now becoming a concern, the airlines wanted to consider two very different options - either operating fewer flights in bigger airplanes, or operating flights not between major hubs, but perhaps between two secondary cities, or maybe between a hub at one end and a secondary city at the other end.

For example, say you want to fly from Portland, OR to Lyon in France.  In the traditional hub approach, you'd fly from Portland perhaps to Chicago or New York (a hub) and then to perhaps London or Paris (also hubs) and then from there to Lyon.  If an airline wished to retain this hub focused service, and if either or both hubs were congested, it would want to increase the size of the plane it flew so as to move more people with the same or fewer flights.  This makes obvious good sense.

But developments in new smaller airplanes were making the newer planes almost as cost effective, per passenger, as a 747, and in this environment, a different concept was that if there is enough traffic to support direct service between secondary airports, or between a hub and a secondary airport, then this gives more customer choices and better positions an airline to get more market share.

In our example, this might mean nonstop flights between Portland and Lyon, or perhaps nonstop flights between Portland and London, then connecting on to Lyon.  The first scenario relieves congestion in both New York and London, the second scenario relieves congestion in New York only.

Which is the better choice for an airline to make?  And, for the airplane manufacturers, which is the better plane to offer the airlines?  A bigger plane, or a more fuel efficient smaller plane?

This question plagued Boeing for a long time, and, prior to it announcing the 747-8 in 2005 (see below), it ended up choosing the more fuel efficient smaller plane option - the very successful 787 that is due to start flying sometime soon.

But, in reality, the question is poorly phrased and embodied within it a false assumption.  The false assumption is that the airlines are confronted with an 'either/or' choice - smaller planes on secondary routes or (but not and) larger planes on main hub to hub routes.

In most cases, an airline needs both options.  While Portland to London might be viable as a direct route, think of a smaller city - Boise, ID, perhaps.  It is unlikely that there'll ever be support for nonstop Boise-London flights, and so airlines will choose to route London bound passengers from Boise via a hub and so still need to optimize their most popular routes for an appropriate number of daily flights, each capable of taking as many passengers as the market needs.

Design choice :  Longer range or greater passenger capacity

Another aspect of this debate was a trade-off between increased passenger capacity and longer range.  Longer range planes can fly further without stopping (of course), which has operational benefits to the airlines (unnecessary stops are expensive for an airline, involving airport fees, reduced productive usage of the plane, and excessive fuel cost to take off again) and which appeal to most travelers, who are keen to minimize the stops and delays on their journey.

One of the implications of flying 'point to point' between secondary cities is that many times these routes would be longer than a two or three stop routing involving stops in hubs along the way, requiring a plane with longer range capabilities.

At an earlier stage of airplane design, there was typically a trade-off between either long range or greater passenger capacity.  But more recently, improved airplane design and greater fuel efficiency has removed the need to choose between long range or greater passenger numbers.  Planes are now approaching the maximum range ever needed (ie about 12,000 miles, which is far enough to fly from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world), and even the very largest planes can also offer some of the very longest flying ranges.

This issue has increasingly become a non-issue.

The Airbus and Boeing responses to these issues

Airbus initially placed its bet on a super-jumbo, and then covered its bet with an improved mid-size plane (the A350), while Boeing adopted the opposite strategy, eventually deciding to give priority first to its improved mid-size plane (the 787) and then secondarily to its expanded 747-8.

To get an independent view on the bigger plane vs smaller market choice, heavily congested Heathrow Airport in London (the world's third busiest airport) is projecting that by 2016, one in every eight flights through its airport will be an A380.  In comparison, only one in every nine flights at LHR today is a 747.  In other words, Heathrow is expecting that, within ten years of its release, the A380 will be more popular than the 747 is today, 30 years after its release.

Clearly Heathrow sees a huge need for bigger planes such as the A380.  And with 202 A380 planes sold so far, that perception seems to be increasingly shared by airlines around the world.

 

Part 1 of a four part series on the Airbus A380 - please also visit

1.  Airbus A380 antecedents

2.  Differing plans for a 747 successor

3.  A380 completion, configuration, and controversy

4.  Inside an Emirates A380

 

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Originally published 8 Aug 2008, last update 08 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 
 

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