Photo: Airbus

MIAMI – As we just saw at the 2017 Paris Air Show (PAS), Airbus is committed to improving the A380. This pleases me, all the while it is causing cries of horror all over the internet from those who are not fans of the A380. Which, also, pleases me.

Vinay Bhaskara can tell you the details and his opinions in his recent piece for Airways. And, for the most part – I agree.

Photo: Airbus
Photo: Airbus

This is a move about backlog protection, to some degree; it also is a signal to investors and stakeholders that the A380 isn’t dead.

Before any of you go on about the SQ aircraft not finding homes, kindly remember that they are more the equivalent in similarity to a bespoke, but deeply flawed suit than a true mass-produced aircraft with the correct wing twist – I wouldn’t buy someone else’s suit that didn’t fit me either. Unfortunately, there’s no Goodwill for airliners.

The fact Airbus is even willing to put any more development money into the A380 is fantastic news. I have, for the better part of a decade, been saying that this aircraft was never supposed to be a sub 600-seater.

I understand why many airlines don’t cross that threshold due to the fact the A380, as we know it under that seat-count, has an almost perverse range. But that doesn’t mean they’re right. Nevertheless, it shouldn’t have taken Airbus this long to make it obvious. Let’s talk about why it’s a step in the right direction.

While 3-5-3 is no passenger’s idea of heaven, and the original 3-5-3 mockup was so poorly orchestrated that it almost felt like a prank, this isn’t. Thinning the sidewalls allows for a true 18″ level seat for all 11 passengers per row.

Not only does a relatively simple sidewall modification allow for densification of all economy, but it also gives the potential for the birth of a true “Basic” Economy Class. Whether anyone will bite on that remains unseen, but it surprises me that it has not been done.

On the upper deck, the removal of the real estate consuming side storage bins will be a long time coming. They are handy in denser Business Class configurations when getting out of the seat is a bother – but that isn’t earning anyone a profit.

The ability to, potentially, increase row density on the upper deck is another way to get to that magic 80 more seats. If it were me at Airbus during the birth of the A380 program, I would have been championing this idea from day one. Alas, I was not. Still, it’s a start.

Another start is the 4% fuel burn saving. This isn’t Airbus saying the airframe has no more potential beyond mock-up winglets and a sticker that says “plus,” this is Airbus signaling the market that with demand/proper capitalization they can make an even more efficient frame.

So 4% less fuel burn of an aircraft with a phenomenally large fuel capacity is, again, a start. That gets the frame 80 more seats and keeps the current range while allowing specific Arabian Gulf Airlines the ability to fly even further in today’s configuration.

Would I have preferred, years ago, the announcement of some sort of hot-rod A380neo with Trent XWBs? Absolutely, especially with a stretch. This brings me to my next point.

With the highlighting of the fact, the Plus version of the A380 can yield a 13% lower unit cost per seat; Airbus is finally understanding the truth of the 388. It is a seat-mile buster. Always has been, always will be.

It was never for the North American market that adores frequency over capacity and can be highly seasonal in demand.  It is not too big; if anything, I still say it’s too small. Gates are a finite resource, slots are a finite resource, demand between certain city pairs is unfavorable to multiple frequencies due to length of flight, airport curfews, and time zones.

If a big twin can threaten the primacy of the A380’s capacity – then it’s not too big. If it was, no one would buy a Boeing 777-9, even though it will be more efficient.

Airbus has come to understand that in a world of fuel-sipping plastic aircraft like the 787 and A350 that offer a low unit cost like that of a VLA with much less worry of empty seats. One must either go big or go home if you don’t want to cannibalize the product line.

As it stands right now, even I would have to think long and hard about ordering a current A380-800 vs. an A350-1000 if given the ability to cram more seats in…

Well. I would do one of two things. Order a Plus with its increased seating capacity or keep badgering Airbus until I could prove the case for a production run of a stretch along with the NEO.

So that’s what this is. This is a baseball-bat-through-the-back-of-a-truck-window style message to the market and to Airbus customers saying that there is a future for the A380.