MIAMI – Airbus has announced its latest capacity-expanding interior option for the Airbus A380s with the New Forward Stairs (NFS) option, which allows airlines to add 20 extra seats in the A380 by relocating the forward stair from door 1 to door 2 and combining the staircase to the upper deck (NFS) and the staircase down to the crew rest area.

The NFS is the latest in a series of capacity enhancements that have been unveiled for the A380 in recent years that allow airlines to add up to 80 additional seats against the average capacity of the A380s in service today (497).

Dr. Kiran Rao, EVP of Strategy and Marketing at Airbus Commercial Aircraft said: “Continuous improvement of our products is our daily work. This new package for our A380 customers is a smart way to meet airline needs while improving the A380 economics with additional revenues and innovating in passenger comfort.”

Dr. Rao added: “Only the A380 has the economies of scale and development potential to efficiently solve the problem of increasing congestion at large airports while providing the best comfort for passengers. The aircraft can also serve fast-growing markets and airlines regional airports, so we are adapting the aircraft to meet evolving market needs.”

The full list of capacity enhancements to the A380 is as follows:

  • NFS – 20 additional seats
  • Combined Crew-Rest Compartment (CCRC) – 3 additional seats
    • Moving flight crew rest down to the same below cabin area of the lower deck cabin crew rest.
  • 11-abreast seating – 23 extra passengers
    • Switching to a 3-5-3 configuration on the main deck
  • Aft-Galley Stair Module (AGSM) – 14 extra passengers
    • Redesigning the rear stair from a spiral to a straight arrangement, allowing for 14 extra passengers and two more food trolley
  • Upper-deck sidewall stowage removal – 10 extra passengers
    • Removing sidewall storage on the upper deck increases cabin width
  • Nine-Abreast Premium Economy – 11 extra passengers
    • Going to 9 abreast premium economy on the main deck

Despite this wide variety of capacity enhancements, the seat pitch on the A380 (even at 11-abreast) is still 18-inches, an inch more than the 777 at 10-abreast.

Trying to reclaim the throne as the CASM king

The A380 has been a weak link in the Airbus product lineup for some time now, with its last “big sales” year coming back in 2013 when Airbus sold 42 A380s. The last decent year for the plane was 2014 when it won 13 net orders thanks to a purchase of 20 A380s by lessor Amedeo (who has struggled to place the planes with customers).

Fundamentally, the A380 is just too big of a plane for a lot of customers, but another issue that has arisen is the fact that despite being the largest airplane in the world by passengers carried, the A380 may not have the lowest seat-mile costs (seat-mile costs tend to decline as a plane increases in size assuming that both the planes are in the same generation of technology) of any plane in the market today.

In fact when the Boeing 777-9X (Boeing’s re-engined stretch of the 777-300ER) debuts in 2020, it will outstrip the A380 in terms of unit costs (CASM) even at today’s (depressed fuel prices).

If a 2003-2008 ($140/barrel oil) or even a 2010-2014-esque ($100/barrel oil) fuel price spike occurs, then the 777-9X’s advantage will only grow. Now the major caveat is that this advantage holds against the real world configurations of the A380 that average 497 seats, not the larger 575 seat versions. If the A380 were configured with more seats, then it would almost assuredly be a lower CASM aircraft than the 777-9X at pretty much any fuel price despite the 777-9X having a newer and more fuel-efficient engine technology.

So the NFS option and the other capacity enhancements totaling up to 80 new seats are meant to regain the A380’s CASM advantage.

NFS and other capacity enhancements don’t alter the A380’s fundamental flaws

The challenge is that the A380’s problem isn’t with CASM, but it’s that airlines can’t fill the plane with 500+ seats. Even in today’s world of rapid demand growth and air traffic control/airport infrastructure constraints, the number of market segments that can sustain 550+ seats on a single flight is tiny.

Particularly year round, as there are plenty of markets to fly the A380 in during the IATA Northern Summer (April-October) but comparatively few during the IATA Northern Winter (November – March).

The preference for frequency from business travelers (who drive purchases for the world’s biggest airlines) is strong enough that the A380 can really only be used on long haul routes, and you either need a truly massive and powerful hub, or a home base airport with capacity constraints to sustain A380 service.

The list of airlines that have been 100% successful with the A380 is basically Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Korean Air, and British Airways. And even Singapore Airlines isn’t thrilled with its A380s and is returning its original 5 frames while Lufthansa reduced its original order. Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and Qantas have deferred or reduced their orders for A380s.

Meanwhile lessor ILFC, Skymark Airlines, Kingfisher Airlines (who went out of business), Air Austral, and the government of Saudi Arabia outright canceled their orders.

Even amongst other operators, Malaysia Airlines is only able to sustain the A380 through niche businesses like Haj travel, Asiana’s A380s are fine though they are difficult to fill, as is true for China Southern as well. Etihad and Qatar Airways each fly the A380 as well but it is hardly economical for either airline.

Other than five airlines, every other carrier has either struggled with the business case or configured the A380 with so many premium seats that it ceased to serve missions as a superjumbo (think Korean Air’s 425-seat A380s). The A380 has won 13 net orders since the 777X program was launched (against 250+ for the 777X) and that perfectly illustrates the challenge that the A380 has faced.

Emirates is the linchpin

For a while now, Airbus has held out hope that some of the market trends that it foresaw (developing market growth, Asian ATC constraints) will help buoy the A380 if it can just hold out for the next 2-3 years. The challenge is that the customer most critical to that effort is Emirates, and Emirates is waking up to the fact that its growth story isn’t going to continue unabated forever.

There are myriad reasons for this, many of which I explored in my two-part analysis of the Middle Eastern airline giants and discussed in Episode 25 of the Airways podcasts (you can listen below).

But the long and the short of it is that Emirates may be better off paring back its A380 fleet and focusing more on mid-sized widebodies and the more-flexible 777X given some of the market constraints. Emirates has backed up that conclusion by stating that it would park some of its superjumbos. And that would be very bad news for Airbus.

Without Emirates buying in there is no way for Airbus to credibly keep the A380 alive in its current iteration or launch a re-engined A380neo into the market.

Airbus’ additions of capacity and other improvements to the A380’s passenger experience and unit costs are a great incremental update for existing customers, but they do not change the fundamental flaws that have held back the A380’s sales and business model or its (bleak) future prospects.