MIAMI – Today in Aviation, Airbus presented its wide-body aircraft prototype to the world, the A380, the world’s largest passenger airliner, in 2005.

Who would have thought it would go that far? Who would have thought that aviation would get to this point? As early as 1969, Boeing had changed the way of traveling, creating what has been the icon of aviation for many years, the Boeing 747, which has dominated far and wide, breaking all records.

However, a well-known European consortium that wanted to take on Boeing as early as the 1980s decided to put an end to this US-led long-haul market hegemony. And so, Airbus, the Franco-German giant, presented its full-length double-decked aircraft 16 years ago. Nicknamed the superjumbo, Airbus changed the way we travel with the A380-800.

The A380 was supposed to revolutionize commercial air travel and was launched in 1990 as a response to Boeing’s 747. The first deliveries of the A380 began in 2007 to Singapore Airlines (SQ), and the aircraft had its prime years between 2012 and 2014.

Airbus A380-800 Photo: Airbus

History of the Airbus A380

Aware of the entrepreneurial risk, and with Boeing out of the game due to the knowledge of the production cost of an aircraft with a capacity of between 600 and 800 seats, Airbus wanted to introduce the Hub to Hub concept, believing that the future would follow through on its view on how global route networks should be.

The Hub to Hub concept envisaged the construction of specific satellites for the transit of its A380; first of all, a terminal dedicated only to that type of aircraft, and most importantly, four fingers (jet bridges). Being a large-capacity double-deck aircraft (555 seats in three classes and 853 in charter configuration for FAA and 868 for EASA), to facilitate boarding and disembarking operations, travelers had to already be conveyed in their respective classes.

In fact, not all airports could afford such improvements, to the point that the companies carefully chose the large airports that could host the superjumbo.

The A380, being a mammoth aircraft, was produced in four different states of the European Union: France, Germany, Spain and England are the major production lines of the structural sections. Its size has changed, among others, the method of transporting the various sections: a special barge was developed that could carry the front and rear sections of the aircraft.

Once the fuselage arrived in Hamburg with the RORO barge, the sections were then transported by plane on the Airbus Beluga. The production line is located in Saint Nazaire. Another ship travels through Mostyn in the UK where the wings are loaded. At Saint-Nazaire, the ship swaps fuselage parts from Hamburg for larger, assembled sections, some of which also include the nose.

The ship then unloads in Bordeaux and travels to Cadiz in southern Spain, where it collects sections of the lower fuselage and tail from the Construcciones Aeronautica and takes them to Bordeaux. From there, parts of the A380 are transported by barges to Langon then by large road convoys to the assembly hall in Toulouse.

To avoid damage caused by direct handling, the parts are fixed in customized jigs and transported on self-powered vehicles. After assembly, the aircraft is transported to Hamburg Finkenwnder Airport (XFW).

Airbus A380-861 GP7270 Engine test Photo: Airbus

The Tests

As many as five aircraft were built for testing, of which the first registered as F-WWOW (MSN 001), presented at the Toulouse plant (TLS) on January 18, 2005. Its first flight was made on April 27 of the same year, equipped with Rolls Royce Trent 970B-64 engines, departed from Toulouse-Blagnac airport (TLS) with captain and chief test driver Jacques Rosay on board. Rosay said flying the A380 was “like riding a bicycle.”

The first A380 powered by GP7200 engines – serial number MSN009 and registration F-WWEA – flew on 25 August 2006. On 4 September 2006, the first complete flight test for passenger transport took place, the plane flew from Toulouse with 474 Airbus employees on board, in a test of structure and comfort.

In November 2006, a further series of test flights demonstrated the aircraft’s performance for 150 flight hours under typical airline operating conditions. As of 2014, the test aircraft continues to carry out the test procedures.

Airbus obtained certificates for the A380-841 and A380-842 models from EASA and the FAA on 12 December 2006, in a joint ceremony at the company’s French headquarters, which received ICAO code A388. The A380-861 was added on December 14, 2007.

An Airbus A380 with the call sign F-WWOW at Bremen’s airport which was celebrating its hundredth birthday that day. PHOTO: Garitzko.

Technical Features

The aircraft, made for 80% of aluminum and the remaining 20% of composite material, weighs 277 tons when empty, while at full load it reaches 512 tons. With a maximum take-off weight of 577 tons, the A380 is the commercial aircraft with the largest wingspan in the world: 79 meters wide and 72 meters long.

In addition, the A380 ranks as the fifth longest commercial aircraft: in first place we find the Boeing 777-9x (77 meters), the 747-8i / f (76 meters), A340-600 (75 meters), 777-300ER / A350-1000 (74 meters), A380-800 (72 meters).

The aircraft, sold in three versions, A380-841, 842 and -861, has three different engines. Airbus signed an agreement with both Rolls Royce and Engine Alliance, a joint venture created between General Electric. The thrusters available for the A380 are as follows:

  • Rolls Royce Trent 970-B84 for the Airbus A380-841
  • Rolls Royce Trent 972-B84 for the Airbus A380-842
  • Engine Alliance EA GP (G stands for General Electric and P for Pratt And Whitney) 7270 for the Airbus A380-861.

The high pressure compressors derive from the GE90 while the low pressure compressors derive from the PW4000 series. All three engines have a power ranging from 320kn to 360kn, in fact they were developed simultaneously to have the same technical characteristics and have the necessary power to allow the aircraft to take off even with only two engines.

Another peculiarity of this aircraft is the fact that it only has two reversers in the internal engines. According to Airbus engineers, these have an equivalent power of four while landing. To reduce the weight of the aircraft, the thrust reversers located on the number 2 and number 3 engines are electric and not hydraulic.

One of the many mammoth parts of this aircraft is the group of carriages, which has 20 wheels in the rear (with central carriage) and as per tradition, two in the front carriage. This allows the aircraft to land in a gentle way.

Finally, the A380, configurable in both charter and four classes, can carry 853 passengers with a single class, while with the three class configuration, the aircraft can carry up to 555 passengers. The three-class configuration was used by all A380 customers.

Emirates A380. Photo: Fabrizio Spicuglia

Airlines That Have Embraced the A380

Emirates (EK), Qatar (QR), Etihad (EY), Singapore (SQ), British Airways (BA), Qantas (QF), Lufthansa (LH), Air France (AF), ANA (NH), China Southern ( CZ), Thai Airways (TG), Korean Air (KE), Asiana Airlines (OZ) are the companies that have the A380 in their fleet. The first company to receive the first A380 was SQ, registered 9V-SKA, on 15 October 2007.

The largest user of the A380 is EK with 117 units in the fleet, although the order was initially for 139 aircraft, of which the last 30 powered Rolls Royce. Following the announcement by Airbus of the end of the A380 project, the last A380 destined for EK will be delivered in mid-2021, which will be the 118th of 243 units built.

Airbus A380-800 TLS Blagnac. Photo: Alberto Cucini/AW

The Premature Closure of the Project

While the spacious A380 is a formidable machine from a comfort point of view (I flew it in January with LH for LAX, D-AIMM and D-AIMF), from a technologies point of view, it is an aircraft that economically requires a great deal of effort from airlines.

As for the Hub-to-Hub idea, airlines began to adopt the point-to-point system in the years following the release of the A380. The reason was simple: newly adopted twin-engine aircraft were more efficient in terms of consumption, on the filling coefficient, and on their smaller size, perfect for the point-to-point model.

This was not good for Airbus, as the company had overestimated sales of the 544-seat jet. Airbus also did not anticipate the rapid growth of intermediary or secondary cities, and the ability of smaller jets to directly service them, bypassing the megacity hubs, according to a Reuters report.

In addition, it did not help that the A380 was designed for passenger transport alone, meaning it could not accommodate cargo. The Open Skies agreements, where airlines could respond to market demands, avoiding political arrangements between countries on how many landings and takeoffs they would permit.

PHOTO: Singapore Airlines.

Not Enough Deliveries

Finally, Airbus expected to have about 1,500 A380s in service by 2020. Alas, it has thus far delivered fewer than 300 of them. Tracing the history of this aircraft, Airbus was unable to cover the budget costs: the development cost in 2016 reached €25bn. To cover this expense, the European giant had to sell at least 270 aircraft.

The cost of each unit in 2016 amounted to US$ 432m, and according to an American study, the plane cost US$26,000 per flight hour. In addition to running costs, wing loading cracks were found on a batch of A380s built before 2016, which did not exceed 135%, when in fact the minimum had to be 150%.

Moreover, although fascinating to see at the airport, the attention that had to be paid towards the aircraft had a considerable cost for the fuel, the transit of the aircraft that was stationed between 90 and 110′, the time necessary to carry out boarding/disembarking, its cleaning and refueling, among other factors.

In airports such as Los Angeles (LAX), a runway was built specifically to ensure that the A380s were not delayed when taking off, given that the ICAO body had provided for minimum safety distances thanks to the huge wake generated by the aircraft during take off.

In the end, thanks to the launch on the market of more efficient aircraft (A350/787) and the pandemic that has jeopardized the growth in the sector ate least for a decade, many airlines that operated the A380 have decided to retire the type permanently, with LH, AF, eTG doing so due to the already adverse financial crisis. Other airlines have instead decided to send it to long term storage, to see if in 3-4 years traffic will resume to pre-COVID-19 levels.

Singapore Airlines recently retired one of the first A380s and decided not to renew any lease for the type. Airbus, confident of FedEx and UPS’s interest in the cargo version, realized that the construction of the that version was costly, leaving the project aside for good.

Airbus announced the end of the A380 in a press release about EK reducing its A380 order book from 162 to 123 aircraft. Earlier this month, Australian airline Qantas (QF), too, canceled its order for eight A380 aircraft. The final A380 rolled out of Tulouse in September of last year.

Featured image: Singapore Airlines Airbus A380-800 ready for the painting. Photo: Alberto Cucini/Airways