MIAMI — Over the weekend, Emirates debuted its long awaited 615-seat Airbus A380-800 aircraft, taking over the title of densest A380 configuration (and by default world’s highest capacity airplane configuration) from the 538-seat setup currently employed by Air France. The new configuration was achieved by eliminating the first class cabin and associated shower while reducing business class seating as well, and adding economy class seats on the upper deck.

Emirates’ currently operates 67 A380s seating either 489 or 517 passengers in a 3-class configuration. Each configuration includes 90 premium cabin flat bed seats (14 First Class Suites and 76 Business Class seats), while differing in Economy Class capacity (399 versus 427). Their 68th A380 comes in the new configuration, which features 58 Business Class seats and a whopping 557 Economy Class ones. Emirates still has 72 A380s on order, and several of them are expected to feature the high-density configuration. Emirates has largely saturated the markets that are simultaneously big enough to fill the A380 and have enough premium demand for 90 seats (the next largest premium cabins in Emirates’ fleet have 54 seats [12F / 42J]).

Emirates doesn’t bite on 11-abreast seating – yet

Even as Emirates debuted its high-density whale, economy class flyers around the world breathed a sigh of relief that Emirates chose not to configure the A380 with 11-abreast seating on the main deck in economy class. The new seating option, unveiled by Airbus and Amadeo, would offer 3-5-3 seating on the main deck, reducing armrest widths and jamming window seats against the wall to nominally maintain an 18-inch seat width while actually offering as much viable personal space as the notably uncomfortable 10-abreast Boeing 777. Emirates was one of the first carriers to go 10-abreast on its fleet of Boeing 777s. And for a carrier that is so focused on driving down seat-mile costs (cost per available seat mile or CASM) to feed more passengers in its Dubai super-hub, it wasn’t a stretch to believe that they would give in to the temptation of driving CASM even lower with 11-abreast seating in economy, which would allow them to add an additional 35-40 seats to the main deck.

However, despite this initial decision, Emirates may yet decide to add 11-abreast seating on its A380 fleet. With 72 A380s still on order, it will certainly have ample opportunity to do so. One key trigger for such a decision could if Emirates opts to add a premium economy cabin, which makes good money for European and Asian carriers, and would likely be a hit in markets where Emirates is currently flying two-class long haul metal. In order to keep its CASM at similar levels, Emirates could opt to go 11-abreast downstairs while switching the upper deck economy cabin to premium economy in a 2-4-2 configuration. The Amedeo image in this Runway Girl Network article provides a sketch of what this could look like, swapping out the First Class seats for additional Business Class ones.

Even if Emirates doesn’t add premium economy, another catalyst for switching to 11-abreast could be Airbus’ decision on the re-engined A380neo. If Airbus doesn’t choose to move forward with major enhancements to the A380, it might push Emirates to increase capacity further on its existing A380 fleet. Emirates has previously indicated that it would welcome a higher capacity A380 (routes like London Heathrow or New York JFK could certainly use one), a capability which many presume will be part of the next round of A380 development around an A380neo. But if Airbus stands pat with its current model, this could push Emirates to boost A380 seating through another mechanism, going 11-abreast to get to 650 seats or even 675 by taking out a few rows of business class.

Emirates remains the CASM king

The high density A380 hits the sweet spot in Emirates’ network for destinations like Manila, where there is buoyant economy class demand but little need for a First Class cabin. It will also be a boom for high volume routes to India, where the short stage length renders a First Class cabin completely irrelevant. And for the rest of the world’s carriers, it will make competing with the Emirates juggernaut even more painful in the coming months and years. Emirates’ current A380s already offer amongst the lowest CASM in the business, and the new plane will be head and shoulders above anyone else, enabling Emirates to offer even lower fares for passengers connecting in Dubai. Passengers might rejoice, but even airlines who have the Boeing 777X and A350-1000 on order will no longer be able to look forward to the day where their widebody fleet will be CASM competitive with the A380. Both aircraft beat the current generation A380 configured at 500-520 seats, but that advantage flips once again at 615. With the new high-density configuration, Emirates has truly reached the point where (at least for cost) in order to compete with the A380, you need an A380 of your own.