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Airbus A380 SuperJumbo: White Elephant of the Skies (Section IV – Revenue Service)

Jeffrey Syken

History doesn't repeat itself but it often rhymes
Mark Twain

In telling the story of the ill-fated Airbus A380-800 “SuperJumbo,” Mark Twain’s observation takes on a whole new meaning. In order to develop the Super-Sonic Transport (SST), a European consortium of British and French aerospace companies, subsidized by their respective governments, joined forces to create Concorde, which first took flight in 1969 – the same year Boeing would launch the 747-100; the world’s first “Jumbo” jet airliner. The “rhyming” with the story of Concorde and the A380 is multi-faceted, in particular as it regards the consortium formed to create Concorde and compete with the American SST, which never flew. So too were the technological advances achieved by both Concorde and the A380, which set precedents for aircraft design, fabrication and performance. On the down-side, though popular and well-received by the flying public, both were market flops. In very many ways, both Concorde and the A380 were vanity projects whereby their progenitors lost site of the forest because the trees were in the way.

By the 1990s, when a SuperJumbo was first being discussed, Airbus Industrie was an established fact, gaining an ever-increasing market share of the commercial airliner market. Rather than just France and the UK, the “Airbus Countries” included Germany and Spain. Alone, they could not compete on the world stage, but together, they were giving Boeing quite a run-for-the-money. To achieve their goal of 50% of the commercial airliner market, they had to be able to compete with Boeing in the Very-Large Aircraft (VLA) sector of the market, which Boeing dominated with their 747 and its derivatives. Although the 747 had been a world-changer, it struggled to achieve profitable “Load Factors,” spawning competing wide-body jets such as the DC-10 and L1011. With an ever-increasing passenger volume, Airbus saw the development of a Superjumbo, capable of carrying +800 passengers, as the solution to the problem of congested airports. Based on their own experiences with the 747, Boeing saw the glass half-empty; with a marginal demand for such aircraft. To be on the safe side, Boeing would upgrade the 747-400, resulting in the 747-8.

The key to the A380s success lay in the “Hub-and-Spoke” network of airports whereby passengers would fly to major hubs on large jet aircraft and from there, take flights to their ultimate destination on smaller aircraft. First introduced by American Airlines in the post-WWII years, it was an efficient system for the airlines, but inefficient for passengers, typically taking them one-third out-of-their way and resulting in an average speed of less than 100 mph door-to-door. With the development of efficient, versatile, long-range twin-engine aircraft, the market was changing to a passenger-preferred “Point-to-Point” network. Boeing had recognized this trend and developed aircraft such as the 787 “Dreamliner” to accommodate the new reality. Ironically, it was the airlines themselves that caused many of the problems that would ultimately doom the A380. With extensive customization and the addition of amenities such as showers, spas and casinos, the A380 - which was conceived to carry +800 passengers, was carrying +500 in typical airline configurations. It seemed only Emirates Airlines was able to make the A380 work, sort of in the way Airbus first envisioned it. Paradoxically, it would be Emirates’ cancellation of a large A380 order that would seal the fate of the world’s first SuperJumbo.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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