Airbus move to close down the A380 is a sad end to a brave endeavour

For insiders, the decision was a long time coming. But it still came as a shock to hear Airbus formally announce in February its “painful” decision to end production of its A380 superjumbo passenger jet in 2021 after failing to secure enough new orders.

When the A380 was launched in 2000, Airbus touted the two-deck plane as “the Eighth Wonder of the World.” It was a design marvel, using a  groundbreaking composite structure, with carbon ribs within aluminium wings, and equipped with the most advanced navigation system in commercial aviation. It typically carries 525 people but could theoretically hold up to 853. More than 190 million passengers have flown in the A380 since the first production plane rolled off the assembly line in Toulouse in 2007 for Singapore Airlines. Passengers loved it. But the economics did not add up.

Misjudged market

Airbus sank at least €14 billion into the iconic European project yet sold fewer than half of the 750 A380s it promised to deliver by the end of this year. So far only 234 units have been delivered out of 313 ordered over 13 years. The break-even point was originally estimated at 1,200 aircraft over 20 years.

Indeed, the main reason the A380 has failed is because Airbus misjudged its market. It anticipated that air traffic would be in long-haul flights to big hubs like Singapore, Tokyo, New York and London – with travellers then getting on smaller planes to their final destination.

But the market was already changing by the time the first Singapore Airlines plane was delivered. Airlines that initially favoured big hubs began to offer more direct flights from mid-sized airports. The trend has been to more convenient point-to-point flights and fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft.

There were other factors too. The 2008 economic crisis cut into the growth in air traffic. The growth of low-cost airlines meant fewer carriers ready to spend billions on superjumbos. The jet fuel and operating costs of the four-engine A380 were around €25,000 per hour, about twice that of a long-range twin-engine Boeing 787. The A380’s immense size and double-deck layout meant airports needed to make massive investments too – and many refused. As Airbus CEO Tom Enders said when announcing the A380’s demise: “What we are seeing here is the end of the large four-engine aircraft.”

Not all bad news

It is not all bad news for Airbus. It was losing money with the A380, and from a business perspective, the decision to shut it down is actually a relief. Airbus launched its new mid-size flagship, the A350, in 2014. Like Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, it has only two engines but can fly great distances. Now resources can be redirected to this model, which has a much better market potential.

It is still a sad moment. Like the Concorde, this was a magnificent project, a testimony to European engineering, creativity and collaboration. It was ultimately unsustainable, but it will be remembered for many years to come.

It might have been coincidental, but the decision to end production was announced within a week of the 50th anniversary of the first flight of Boeing’s signature model, the 747 – the very plane that the A380 was designed to compete with. But the 747 is also ending production, marking the end of an era for flying giants.