MIAMI — October 25, 2017, marks the tenth anniversary of the Airbus A380’s entry into service with Singapore Airlines, but story of the world’s largest passenger plane dates back a lot further, nearly 30 years in fact.
80s and 90s: Ideating the World’s First Superjumbo
Engineers first began imagining an ultra-high-capacity airliner (UHCA) in the late 80s, and Airbus introduced the project in 1990 at the Farnborough Airshow, a weeklong event held in the U.K. with roots dating back nearly a century.
If the project was successful, not only would the plane help to round out Airbus’ product line, it had the potential to break the foothold Boeing had in this market with its 747.
In June 1994, Airbus officially announced plans to develop the aircraft, which at the time they referred to as the A3XX. Around the same time, Boeing was dreaming up its own UHCA, which the U.S. manufacturer referred to as the NLA or New Large Airplane.
Even though it would only be slightly larger than the 747, the concept was only short-lived. McDonnell Douglas toyed with entering into the “superjumbo” market as well with the MD-12 design study, which also turned out to be a flop.
In May 1996, the A3XX project team engaged in a “quick and exhausting world tour,” according to Phillip Jarry, Vice President of Market Development for the program. The tour entailed knocking on the doors of major airline CEOs to garner support – an effort that proved widely successful in Asia, Europe, and even the U.S.
Early 2000s: Official Program Launch and a New Perspective on Flight
The industrial launch of the A3XX took place in December 2000, which is also when the jetliner assumed its new name: the A380. The new name deviated from the manufacturer’s previous naming conventions that sequenced from A300 to A340.
In fact, the “8” was chosen not only because the numeral somewhat resembles the cross-section of the two decks, but also because it is a lucky number in many Asian countries where the aircraft was being marketed.
In 2001, the A380’s configuration was finalized and the aircraft test program officially kicked off with systems testing. However, that same year, the worst terrorist attack in world history would forever change air travel as the world had come to know it.
On September 11, 2001, 19 al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four planes that had departed various airports in the northeastern region of the U.S. Of the four planes – all bound for California – two crashed into the World Trade Center complex in New York City, one crashed into the Pentagon in Arlington County, VA and the fourth was bound for Washington D.C. but ended up crashing into a field near Shanksville, PA after passengers tried to overcome the hijackers. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the attacks.
Business confidence dropped and so did the number of people wanting to fly, but that didn’t stop Airbus from pressing on and doing what it took not only to stay in the game, but also to get ahead.
Mid 2000s: Taking to the Skies and Overtaking the Competition
In 2003, manufacturing of the major components of the A380 first began. That same year, Airbus overtook its competition in terms of deliveries for the first time, as its 305 delivered planes represented 52 percent of all aircraft deliveries in the world.
In May 2004, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin opened the A380 assembly line in Toulouse, France and later that year the program began structural testing. On January 18, 2005, more than 5,000 people witnessed the aircraft’s reveal.
At the time, there were 14 launch customers and 149 orders for the A380 and the A380F – the latter was a cargo plane that never came to fruition.
The A380 first took to the skies on April 27, 2005. The plane – with registration F-WWOW – flew for three hours and 54 minutes and was jointly captained by Claude Lelaie, Senior Vice President Flight Division, and Jacques Rosay, Chief Test Pilot and Vice President. Later that year, the program began rigorous structural fatigue testing.
Even though it appeared the A380 program was running smoothly and going according to plan, there were many challenges and difficulties along the way.
As testing continued, an issue was mounting with the airplane’s more than 300 miles of internal wiring. Manufacturing and installing the plane’s electrical systems coupled with the process of customizing individual aircraft to customer specifications led to a six-month delay, first announced in June 2005.
In February 2006, a test wing failed during a wing-strength certification test, which Airbus remedied by adding additional weight to the wing for added strength. Despite the setback, the A380 passed its next test with ease.
In March 2006, the A380 was involved in the largest ever aircraft evacuation test when nearly 900 people – 853 passengers and 20 crew – evacuated the aircraft within 78 seconds. The requirement for certification is 90 seconds.
Just a few months later in June, much to the dismay of those with firm orders, Airbus announced a second delay, pushing deliveries out an additional six to seven months. Despite the delays, however, the A380 continued its testing.
In September 2006, the first test flight with a full passenger load took place, and in November, the A380 flew around the globe on a “route-proving” trip over both poles to test its performance under normal airline operations.
The following month, after stringent certification trials that tested the limits of the airframe and systems, the A380 received certification by European and U.S. airworthiness authorities.
Late 2000s: The A380 Enters Service, Orders Keep Rolling In
On October 15, 2007, Singapore Airlines received the very first A380 at the manufacturer’s delivery center in Toulouse. Singapore used a three-class cabin configuration with a total of 471 seats.
Less than two weeks later, on October 25, Singapore inaugurated revenue service with the A380 on its Singapore-Sydney route. Singapore received three more A380s before deliveries began to Emirates, followed by Qantas – both airlines inaugurated their A380 service in 2008.
In October 2009, Air France received its first A380, making them the first European carrier to receive the new double-deck plane. The Air France A380 entered service the following month, flying between Europe and the U.S. German carrier Lufthansa took delivery of its first A380 in May 2010.
Early to Mid 2010s: More than Half a Million Flight Hours and the 100th Aircraft Delivery
In November 2010, the A380 was involved in its first accident, when Qantas Flight 32 – oddly enough flying the same Singapore-Sydney route that the plane first completed with Singapore – had to make an emergency landing due to an uncontained engine failure that led to several other issues. While no one was injured, the damage to the plane was bad enough that it was still classified as an “accident.”
Qantas grounded all of its A380s until an investigation was completed with engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. Investigators concluded that a defective oil supply pipe led to a fire-causing oil leak, which ultimately caused the engine to fail.
Other Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines showed similar problems and were subsequently changed. During the inspections following the Qantas incident, it was determined that many wing structural fittings had cracks in them, leading to additional inspections and design changes.
That same month, Skymark Airlines announced an order of four A380s and two options, making it the first Japanese airline to order the jumbo jet. However, due to the airline’s financial issues, it never operated the aircraft.
Airbus would complete the airline’s first A380 in April 2014, but shortly thereafter, Skymark would propose an amendment to the purchase agreement, ultimately leading to the cancellation of all orders.
In 2011, orders kept rolling in and planes continued to enter service with new airlines. South Korea’s Asiana Airlines placed a firm order for six A380s. Qatar Airways had already placed an order for two A380s back in 2003 and an additional three in 2007, but in 2011, the Doha-based carrier decided to add an initial five to the order, bringing its total to 10. Other orders came in from Hong Kong Airlines, Korean Air and China Southern Airlines – the first Chinese carrier to operate the plane.
In 2012, Malaysia Airlines took delivery of its first plane, which also marked the 75th A380 delivery worldwide. Thai Airways International also took delivery of its first A380 in 2012. That same year, Transaero Airlines became the first customer in Russia, the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe, when it placed an order for four A380s.
However, at the request of the airline, Airbus announced delayed delivery of the aircraft in August 2015. Later that year, the airline ceased operations, never having received the superjumbos.
Between its introduction in 2007 and September 2012, the A380s in service had logged combined revenue flight hours totaling more than 650,000. In 2013, Airbus celebrated its 100th A380 delivery with another delivery to Malaysia Airlines.
That same year, British Airways took delivery of its first A380, making them the tenth carrier worldwide to fly the plane. In 2014, Asiana Airlines, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways received their first A380s.
Etihad brought a completely new level of opulence to air travel with its A380 cabin configuration. On the lower deck, you’ll find 415 economy seats arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration.
On the upper deck, you’ll find the airline’s business class configured in 1-2-1 seating, nine apartments – each boasting a sofa and a double bed, and finally, the crème de la crème: The Residence.
The Residence offers two guests an inflight experience unlike any other. In the three-room suite, guests have a living room, a bedroom and an ensuite shower room. On its New York-Abu Dhabi route, Etihad’s residence will set passengers back roughly $30,000 one way.
In 2015, Airbus was flirting with the idea of an A380neo – a stretched version of the aircraft that would also have new engines and a plane that Emirates was heavily lobbying for. However, by 2016 talks between the manufacturer and the airline had lapsed and Airbus announced that it would no longer pursue the option.
Nearly a decade after the A380 first entered service, flying on the world’s biggest passenger jet had quickly risen to the top of many travelers’ wish lists. Realizing that, Airbus launched its namesake-booking assistant I fly A380 in June 2016 – a website that allows people to browse all A380 destinations and carriers, finding them an A380 flight based on their agenda.
That same year, ANA Holdings placed an order for three A380s to be delivered in 2019. Upon delivery and entry into service, ANA will become the first Japanese carrier to operate the plane. ANA, who purchased a stake in Skymark after the latter filed for bankruptcy, will also likely purchase two of the six never-delivered Skymark A380s.
Present Day and Looking Forward
In August 2017, Singapore retired the first A380 ever delivered after nearly 10 years of service. The airline returned the aircraft to German leasing firm Dr. Peters Group, and the plane’s future remains unclear.
While the firm will certainly attempt to find an airline willing to take the plane, the more likely fate of the aircraft will be retiring it to the scrap yard, where many of its parts can be recycled.
As of September, Airbus had 317 firm orders and delivered 216 A380s. Emirates remains the largest customer with 142 orders, 98 of which have been delivered. However, last month also marked the second of the A380’s two notable incidents.
On September 30, Air France Flight 66 also suffered an uncontained engine failure on its Paris-Los Angeles route. The flight crew decided to divert to Goose Bay Airport in Canada. No one was injured.
At the 2017 Paris Air Show, Airbus first announced a development study for the enhanced A380plus. It includes aerodynamic improvements, which include large winglets and other refinements that would allow for up to 4 percent fuel burn savings.
The optimized cabin layout includes redesigned stairs and would allow for 11 abreast seats, meaning up to 80 additional seats in total. The aircraft would have an increased maximum take-off weight, in addition to longer maintenance check intervals.
While no airlines have expressed interest in the new-and-improved version, Airbus claims these changes would reduce the cost per seat for passengers by 13 percent.
While the A380 has a well-earned “wow” factor, a decade after it entered service, its future is – for lack of a better term – up in the air. Conceptually, the plane was supposed to fly hub-to-hub, into and out of slot controlled airports.
However, planes like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner – and even Airbus’ own A350 – aim instead to fly point-to-point, bypassing hubs, a strategy that has proved to be more successful and more economical.
Malaysia Airlines will be the first to discontinue the A380 in favor of the more economical A350. The airline plans to repurpose the superjumbos as charters for Hajj – the annual Islamic pilgrimage.
Similarly, Virgin Atlantic placed an order for 12 A350s, meaning it will likely cancel its six-aircraft A380 order placed back in 2001. Reunion-based Air Austral has followed suit, but opted to stray from the Airbus family, canceling the orders for its two A380s in favor of the Dreamliner.
Since Airbus hasn’t received any new orders for A380s in more than two years, the manufacturer continues to cut the production rate. And even though the iconic plane seems to be a passenger favorite, a recurring fear among airlines is that they simply wouldn’t be able to fill the huge plane.
With Emirates accounting for nearly 50 percent of all A380 orders, the UAE-based carrier seems to be the superjumbo’s only hope going forward. But factors such as low oil prices, terrorist attacks and currency unpredictability have quickly lowered the chances of Emirates in effect “saving” the aircraft.
While the Airbus A380 is the only western wide body in history that hasn’t been flown by a North or South American carrier – Hawaiian was apparently interested, but those rumors have since been disproven – the manufacturer seems to be okay with that. Airbus continues to seek out new customers, still focusing on Asian countries like China and Japan.
To date, more than 170 million passengers have flown on one of the superjumbo jets, and per the manufacturer, one of the planes takes off or lands every two minutes. Carriers around the globe continue to receive A380 deliveries, but all signs point toward production continuing to slow, as orders fail to come in.
One thing is for sure, though: this engineering wonder will continue to inspire awe among those who see it in flight, and most certainly among those who are lucky enough to fly on one.