Looking back on the A380: where did it go wrong?

Airbus A380 nose front

Last week, Airbus announced plans to close its A380 programme, stopping deliveries of the world’s largest passenger aircraft in 2021.

The decision came as primary customer Emirates reduced its A380 order from 162 to 123 aircraft, opting instead for 40 of the A330-900neo and 30 A350-900XWB. The airline will now only be taking delivery of 14 more A380s over the next two years until production comes to an end.

Emirates hinted at an uncertain future for its A380 orders in October 2018, following negotiations with Rolls-Royce about its engines underperforming and not meeting desired targets.

Emirates is currently the largest operator of the type in the world, with 109 of the total 234 A380 produced to date delivered to the Gulf carrier.

Airbus A380: A logistical nightmare

To many, the cancellation of the A380 programme comes as little surprise. From the outset, the aircraft was highly-delayed, over-budget, and expensive to operate.

The centre of Airbus’ pitch for the A380 in the early 2000s was the notion of the core long-haul ‘hub and spoke’ model, whereby long-haul flights between big markets with high demand would be handled primarily by the A380, with connecting flights to smaller markets being handled by smaller twin-jet narrowbodies.

This would enable airlines to carry large numbers of passengers between key hubs, and as a concept it made sense — after all, at the time, the long-range variants of the 777 (-200(ER) and -300(ER)) were yet to formally enter service, and the Boeing 747-400 was a hugely successful aircraft, used by airlines around the world on high-demand long-haul routes.

Emirates A380 lined up at Dubai International Airport DXB

This business model worked for the likes of Middle Eastern giants Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad, which have been able to grew rapidly over the past two decades by making use of the A380 and it’s high capacity to connect large numbers of passengers between major global hubs through a centre in the Gulf region.

However, for other airlines, being able to offer point-to-point services — direct flights between two destinations without the need for a hub connection — was deemed more profitable, and Boeing’s development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and 777-200ER/300ER meant that this became a possibility, offering  a similar range to that of the A380, but with lower fuel burn, lower costs, and less of a pressure to fill seats.

Despite a strong start, A380 orders began to flatten by the mid-2010s, while demand for extended-range twinjets like the 777-300ER and Boeing 787 Dreamliner was at an all-time high. In 2015, Airbus secured just 2 orders for the A380. Boeing, by comparison, firmed 71 for the 787. The following year, not a single A380 unit was sold.

A380 orders chart

The Airbus A380 rapidly lost relevance in an industry that is now focusing more on efficiency and on point-to-point services, rather than adding massive capacity on hub-to-hub routes. Looking beyond this shift in the aviation industry, the A380 has been plagued by specific problems with its operating economics from the outset, and when combined with an over-reliance on purchases by Emirates, it is clear that the programme would not be sustainable in the long-run.

Airbus will officially close the A380 programme in 2021, when the last of its orders is fulfilled. The manufacturer currently has an additional 70 orders for the aircraft, of which 23 have been deferred indefinitely.