MIAMI – Airbus and Boeing have been discontinuing their largest, four-engine models for some time now, making double-decker jets a thing of the past. We take a look at their history and why airlines are ditching them altogether.

The majority of commercial aircraft have one passenger deck and one cargo deck for luggage and ULD containers, but just a few have two passenger decks, usually above or below a third freight deck.

The double-deck layout of the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 gave every comfort for premium passengers on the top deck while airlines could use the main deck below to cram over 600 passengers. For example, the Airbus A380-800 had a capacity for 853 passengers in a single class or 644 in a two-tiered class.

However, most of the long-range, wide-body double-deckers around began to vanish from the skies as more efficient twin-engine aircraft took over their long-haul operations. As of 2019, it became clear that the Superjumbo was too big for the market; a bittersweet moment for the A380 double-decker.

Airbus trucked its last A380 fuselage through France in June of last year as it prepared to shut down the line after less than two decades of production. On its part, Boeing is stopping the production of its famed 747 aircraft by 2023. The final Boeing 747s will be delivered to cargo giant Atlas Air (5Y) in 2022, marking the end of the program.

Despite the fact that their popularity began to diminish long before the first COVID-19 case was reported, both types became victims of low demand from the airlines they diligently served during a debilitating pandemic. But before we delve into that, we’ll take a brief look at the history of the double-decker aircraft.

Breguet Br.763 Deux Ponts, F-BASQ, Air France. Photo: By Ralf Manteufel – http://www.abpic.co.uk/photo/1129084/, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19889654

History of the Double-decker


The Boeing 314 Clipper and the Short Sandringham were early flying boat airliners with two decks. Then, following WWII, airlines all over the world started to operate the Stratocruiser, a largely double-decked derivative of the B-29 Superfortress.

The French Breguet Deux-Ponts, which entered service in 1953, was the first full double-deck aircraft. The widebody Boeing 747, which entered service in 1970 and had a top deck that was smaller than the main deck, was the first partly double-deck jet airliner.

At the time, air travel was becoming more popular, and the Boeing 707 and 737 had opened up the market for middle-class travelers to contemplate flying instead of using other means of transportation. The result was airport congestion, and airlines were now forced to compete for a restricted number of landing and take-off slots. As a result, major hubs would auction off times for millions of dollars since there were just no more slots available.

A larger aircraft that could carry two or three times the number of passengers and go the same distance as a 737 would resolve the slots issue to some degree. With the 747, later dubbed the “Queen of the Skies,” Boeing joined the market, and Airbus followed decades later with the A380.

In the presence of Pan Am chairman Najeeb Halaby, First Lady of the United States Pat Nixon christened Pan Am’s first Boeing 747 at Dulles International Airport (IAD) on January 15, 1970. Instead of champagne, the Jumbo was doused with red, white, and blue water. The Jumbo first flew on Pan Am’s New York–London route on January 22, 1970.

British Airways G-BYGC Boeing 747-436 (BOAC Livery). Photo: nick Sheeder/Airways

Long-haul Operations


And so, the era of the long-range, wide-body double-deckers had cemented itself in commercial aviation. Most long-haul travelers appreciated the extra space provided by both planes, which allowed for amenities not available on most single-engine planes. For decades, the Boeing 747 was the first quad-jet engine and dual-level passenger aircraft to streak the skies and the go-to choice of airlines for long-haul routes.

The modest 747 bubble top deck provided unrestricted access to the whole length of the compartment for the cockpit, a few passengers, and the nose doors. Additionally, the hump on the 747 was once utilized for cocktail lounges or as a restaurant in the sky while the A380 was famed for being the first commercial airliner with an in-flight shower, which Emirates (EK) provides to first-class passengers.

The majority of the Boeing 747s were passenger planes, with only a few freight planes featuring nose doors.

On its part, the late-comer Airbus A380 Superjumbo, the world’s first full double-deck jet airliner, had two passenger decks that ran the length of the fuselage and a full-length lower cargo deck. At the end of October 2007, it began regular service with Singapore Airlines (SQ).

Log-haul was big, and with the arrival of the A380-800, the Superjumbo came with a travel range of 8,208 nautical miles or 15,200 kilometers.

Singapore Airlines 9V-SKQ Airbus A380-841. Photo: Tony Bordealis/Airways

Reasons for Retirement


In any market, innovation brings about disruption. The fact is that double-deck aircraft became victims of their manufacturers’ desire to create newer types that could do the job cheaper and more efficiently than the behemoths they formerly praised. As a result, the once-dominant long-haul carriers began to gradually retire their four-engine double-deckers, and in 2020, the coronavirus epidemic hastened the process.

Qantas (QF) and KLM (KL), two of the most well-known airlines in the world, began to speed the closure of the giants. Air France (AF) abruptly retired its Airbus A380 fleet in May of last year, 11 years after its inaugural flight of their Superjumbo. KL, Virgin Atlantic (VS), and Corsair (SS) also retired their Boeing 747s months ahead of plan. More airlines followed suit. Alas, this week Lufthansa (LH) paid tribute to the airline’s last parked A380 in Frankfurt (FRA).

Despite their smaller size, airlines began to flock to efficient twin-engine jets like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350 XWB, which have inevitably replaced their predecessors as the fleet’s flagships. Four engines no longer signified as much as they once had, and airlines started to recognize that they could get by with less.

To be fair to these giants, it is worth noting that Emirates (EK) did bring the superjumbo back into service after the grounding. China Southern still operates a relatively small fleet of five A380s and ANA’s third A380 will likely arrive in Tokyo once demand returns.

As for the Boing 747, there were 441 Jumbo jets in active airline service as of August 2021, comprising six 747-100s, 19 747-200s, four 747-300s, 267 747-400s, and 145 747-8s. Some of the airlines include Air China (CA), Air India (AI), Asiana Airlines (OZ), Korean Air (KE), LH, Mahan Air (W5), and Rossiya Airlines (FV).

Lufthansa D-AIMA Airbus A380-800 Perspective. Photo: Johann Heske/Airways

Twin-engine Aircraft to Fly Overwater Routes


Still, according to Airbus, while the Boeing 747 formerly created previously inaccessible nonstop routes, it is now the 787 and A350 that take up the majority of the slots on the list of the world’s longest flights, with the latter possessing a top range longer than the newest 747. On a temporary hiatus due to the pandemic, it is an A350-900 that flies the world’s longest route between Singapore and Newark.

Airlines no longer require three or four-engine planes to traverse the Atlantic, with aircraft as small as the Airbus A318 making the trans-Atlantic route between New York and London on a near-daily basis prior to the pandemic.

We can recall that in the 1980s, revised government regulations allowing twin-engine planes to fly overwater routes prompted the creation of jets such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 to fly those routes and make them more profitable.

British Airways G-BYGG Boeing 747-400. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways

Efficiency Is the Name of the Game


Fuel is the most expensive aspect of an airline’s operation, and replacing an aircraft with a lighter version that has a similar or better range can save carriers millions. A second deck on an airplane adds significant weight and typically has less floor area than the lower deck, so it can only carry a small number of revenue-generating passengers. The fuel/passenger revenue numbers simply did not add up.

When compared to airlines running larger single-deck aircraft, an airline operating double-deckers may only get a minor revenue boost. Two Dreamliners may be flown for less than the cost of one Airbus A380 flight, with the A350 likely offering comparable economic benefits.

Furthermore, the newer fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft are not only more economical to operate, but they are also less expensive to buy. According to Airbus’ most recent price list, the Airbus A380 costs US$445.6m, while the Boeing 747-8i costs US$418.4m, according to Boeing.

The largest Airbus A350 XWB and Boeing 787 Dreamliners, on the other hand, are less expensive to purchase, with prices starting at US$366.5m and US$338.4m, respectively, as of 2020.

Air France F-HPJH Airbus A380. Photo: Misael Ocasio Hernandez/Airways

More Nonstops, Less Comfort


The fact is that instead of fewer flights on larger aircraft, meaning less flexibility for travelers who did not want to rely on just one flight per day, the wave of next-generation aircraft allowed airlines to provide more nonstop routes, as low-demand routes became profitable due to the aircraft’s efficiency.

The model was pioneered by two airlines, British Airways (BA) and Norwegian Long Haul (DU), opening a series of routes to secondary markets that would not ordinarily see non-stop services to larger hubs.

Without a doubt, there is the comfort factor that passengers will miss experiencing flying on the Queen of the Skies and the Superjumbo. An interview with David Slotnick Business Insider, the CEO of EK, the world’s largest A380 operator, bemoaned the conclusion of the program, stating “nothing is going to be as good” as the Superjumbo for passenger experience.

Here’s to the giants of the sky…

A Boeing 314 “Clipper” in flight. This Boeing 314 (c/n 2081; US civil registration NC18607) was built for the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and served with the UK registration G-AGBZ from 1941 to 1948. It was sold to the General Phoenix Corporation, Baltimore, Maryland (USA), as NC18607 in 1948 and later scrapped. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b37576. Public Domain.

Other Notable Double-deck Aircraft


The following is a non-exhaustive list of the most notable aircraft with double-deck configurations to have crisscrossed the skies.

Double-deck Flying Boats

  • Boeing 314 Clipper
  • Dornier Do-X
  • Short Sandringham
  • Short Empire C-Class and the related G-class
  • Saunders-Roe Princess – did not enter service
BOAC Stratocruiser. Photo: San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives – https://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/9195863204, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35268543

Partial Second Passenger Deck

  • Airbus A330 and Airbus A340 – Optional lower deck lavatories and crew rest
  • Boeing 377 Stratocruiser – Lower deck could be configured for lounge areas or additional seating
  • JAL 747-300 – Stretched upper deck
  • Boeing 747 – Partial upper deck lounge areas or seating / Optional upper deck crew rest and galleys
  • Boeing 767 – Optional lower level crew rest area sleeps six
  • Boeing 777 – Optional lower deck lavatories and galley / Optional upper deck crew rest
  • Junkers G.38
  • Ilyushin Il-86 – Lower deck galley / Lower deck “self loading luggage storage”
  • Lockheed L-1011 Tristar – Lower deck galley / Lower deck lounge (Pacific Southwest Airlines) (LTU International)
  • McDonnell Douglas DC-10 – Lower deck galleys
  • Tupolev Tu-114 – Lower deck galleys / Lower deck aircrew rest area
  • Airbus A380 – Full second passenger deck
  • Breguet 761, 763 and 765
Antonov Airlines UR-82060 Antonov An-225 Mriya. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways

Cargo Aircraft with a Separate Passenger Deck

  • Antonov An-225 Mriya
  • Antonov An-124 Ruslan
  • Lockheed C-5 Galaxy
  • Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter
  • Douglas C-124 Globemaster II
  • Short Belfast
  • Lockheed R6V Constitution
  • Blackburn Beverley – military transport, the main deck could be used for cargo or troops
Douglas C-124 Globemaster II. Here, the experimental YC-124B-DL powered by four Pratt & Whitney YT-34-P-6 turboprops. Photo: United States Air Force – Menard, David W. (1993) USAF Plus Fifteen: A Photo History, 1947-1962. Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. ISBN 0887404839 Image source listed as United States Air Force, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18361227

Double-deck Cargo Aircraft

  • Aviation Traders Carvair
  • Armstrong Whitworth AW.660 Argosy
  • Bristol Freighter
  • Convair XC-99
  • Douglas C-124 Globemaster II
Rendering of the MD-12. Photo: Anynobody – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3889260

Cancel Project Double-deck Passenger Aircraft

  • Bach Super Transport
  • McDonnell Douglas MD-12
  • Sukhoi KR-860
  • Vickers VC-10 Superb: see Vickers VC-10 § Development and production

Featured image: Emirates A6-EET Airbus A380-861. Photo: Luca Flores/Airways. Article sources: BBC, Businessinsider.com, Airbus, Boeing.