The Airbus A380 was the first serious competitor to Boeing’s iconoclastic 747 series, which dominated commercial air travel in the 70s and 80s.
By the late 1980s, plucky underdogs Airbus, tired of Boeing’s enduring supremacy, were devising a craft that hoped to challenge the status quo and end Boeing’s hard-won monopoly.
Airbus had set themselves the formidable task of bettering an iconic and much-loved liner that had singlehandedly revolutionized high-capacity air travel. The question now was whether Airbus could topple giants by eclipsing the industry-leading 747 with their own product.
Background and Development
In the late 1980s, the Boeing 747 was the best passenger airliner available and the only example of a working ultra-high-capacity airliner (UHCA). Since its release in 1969, the 747 had launched Boeing to the highest levels of the aviation industry after a meteoric rise from the end of World War Two.
Hoping to eclipse Boeing was a conglomeration of European aerospace companies led by Airbus, who from 1986 initiated the A330/A340 program that set out to rival America’s aviation behemoths.
In 1990 Airbus made early steps in their quest to usurp the crown, announcing at Farnborough Airshow that they were moving forward with their UHCA proposal.
In addition, the sudden opening up of hundreds more travel destinations following the break-up of the Soviet Union, and a forecasted population boom in Asia, made it the ideal moment for Airbus to launch a rival product that could compete with Boeing for the attention of a whole new generation of travelers.
In 1993, Boeing started proceedings by pumping resources into researching a replacement called a Very Large Commercial Transport (VLCT).
Airbus followed suit, announcing in June 1994 that they were going to try to create their very own VLCT called the A3XX, which strove to outshine the Boeing 747 in every department.
At first Airbus, researchers considered a single-decked aircraft that would seat 12 people abreast, but they later chose a double-decked layout for the benefits of its lighter structure.
Some of Airbus’s key objectives included building the A380 so it could work within existing airport infrastructure and achieving an operating cost per seat of 15-20% less than the 747.
Following a late 1990s reshuffle at Airbus headquarters, the project entered full swing in December 2000 after an 8.8 billion dollar budget was approved by the board of directors, with the first batch of A380s starting production in January 2002.
SIA, Emirates, Qantas and Air France were all early buyers, as were Virgin, whose $3.8 billion order for 6 pushed Airbus’ initial sales target over the projected 50.
The components of the A380 were to be crafted in factories located in every corner of the globe such as Broughton in the UK, Hamburg in Germany, and Nanjing in China. In total, the 4 million different parts that made up the A380 were fabricated by 1500 companies from 30 different countries.
Putting it all together was John Champion, director of the A380 program, who organized a system of aircraft component management teams (ACMT) selected to each work on different areas.
Separate ACMT teams from around the Airbus European network focused on a given component, the nose and centre fuselage being contracted to Airbus France, the forward and aft fuselage to Airbus Germany, the wings to Airbus UK, the tail cone and empennage to Airbus Spain, and the wing leading edges to Belairbus in Belgium.
By their combined efforts, they were to make a plane designed to last for 19,000 flight cycles and 140,000 flight hours, or 25 years.
The Airbus A380 was first unveiled at a ceremony in January 2005 attended by major European leaders from the UK, Germany and France who showed their support for the European civil aviation industry’s latest technological offensive against their American counterparts.
German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder couldn’t resist taking a jab at the US during the function, praising the “tradition of good old Europe” as the driving force for Airbus’ brand new mechanical marvel.
In April 2005, at Blagnac Airport in Toulouse, the A380 flew for the first time without incident, with Airbus chief pilot captain Jacques Rosay remarking how the jumbo-jet was as easy to handle as a bicycle.
After the maiden voyage, however, the program would run into difficulties, with Airbus reporting to customers in June 2005 that they needed to repair some of the wiring.
Further issues arose in February 2006 after a stress test on the plane’s wings showed that they fractured at 146% of the required level rather than the 150% they expected, compelling engineers to add further reinforcing material and increasing weight by 30 kg.
Fixes were followed up by an additional round of test flights in October and November 2005 as well as in February and May 2006. In July 2006 it was unveiled at the Farnborough International Airshow for its first public display, later receiving safety certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December.
At the start of 2007, the A380 was the earliest airliner to be entrusted with ISO 14001 environmental certification, which it illustrated in February 2008 when it became the first aircraft to fly with liquid fuel processed from gas developed from the company’s alternative fuel program.
The A380 had its first transatlantic outing in March 2007, flying from Europe to New York and Los Angeles. In October 2007 the first A380, designated 9V-SKA, completed its inaugural commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney on behalf of Singapore Airlines, with passengers buying seats via an online ticket auction and the money given to charity.
The A380 soon found itself being deployed on a second major route between Dubai and New York operated by Emirates.
Most other aeronautical players, such as Qantas, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Hong Kong Airlines, Air Austral, and Qatar Airways also splashed out on the new model, quickly incorporating it into existing operations, some bigger than others.
Since 2019, the Airbus has operated its shortest flight, clocking in at less than one hour, between Dubai and Muscat over a distance of just 349 kilometers for Emirates Air.
In November 2007, the first VIP edition, named the A380 Flying Palace, was purchased by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud of the Saudi Arabian ruling dynasty. From November 2019, the A380 Airbus operated in over 70 destinations, transporting 300 million passengers in over 7,300,000 hours of total flight time.
The A380 Airbus, which has a maximum take-off weight of 575 tonnes, has a length of 72.7 meters and a height of 24.1 meters. Its wings are swept at an angle of 33.5 degrees and have a wingspan of 79.8 meters as well as a wing area of 845 meters squared.
Instead of being conventionally fashioned with aluminum, the A380 was made from carbon composites and advanced metal alloys which saved up to a ton and a half of weight.
To cut off even more pounds, the upper fuselage shell was built from an entirely new material called Glare, which offered a 15 to 30% weight reduction in comparison with aluminum.
The A380 can be powered by a choice of two engines, the Rolls Royce Trent 900 and the Engine Alliance GP 7200, giving it a maximum range of 15,000 kilometers, and a cruise speed of 0.85 Mach.
When the engines are running, they suck in over a quarter of a tonne of air every second which provides a take-off thrust of 280,000 pounds across the wing, the same power as 2500 family cars. In line with Airbus’ commitment to the environment, the engines possess 33% better fuel burn and C02 emissions than previous generations.
The engines are combined with advanced wing and landing gear innovations so that they produce less noise.
When landing, the A380 travels at 35 kilometers per hour slower than the 747, allowing it to meet strict local requirements. The 6-wheel body gear used for taking off and landing is 260 tonnes, which is the same weight as 200 VW Golfs.
Passenger comfort is a top priority for the A380, with several features added to provide customers with the best experience. It has a maximum passenger capacity of 853, 35% more than the Boeing 747, and its seats provide ample room with up to 19 inches of space for economy ticket-holders.
Passengers breathe air purified by a High-Efficiency Particulate Arrestor (HEPA) every 2 to 3 minutes, which removes 99.9% of particles in the air, including bacterial and viral molecules.
The airliner is split into 15 different temperature zones that can each be configured to between 18 and 30 degrees. For ambiance, it is fitted with 5000 lights and a mood lighting system, alongside 220 large windows providing spectacular views.
Furthermore, the A380 holds 50% more floor space than the Boeing 747. The total area of the two passenger decks combined is 550 meters squared which is equivalent to 3 tennis courts.
The volume of all three decks, including cargo and baggage-hold areas, is 1570 meters squared, which is enough room for 35 million ping-pong balls. Thanks to the roomy layout of its deck, it takes only 30 minutes for passengers to board and 15 minutes for them to disembark.
In February 2019 Airbus revealed they were discontinuing A380 production from mid-2021, after only delivering 234 out of the original 1,200 it set out to sell. The move was prompted by major trade partner Emirates, and their decision to cancel several orders that year.
Problems started in 2007, when the airline industry started to move towards lighter and more cost-effective planes after experiencing unreliable swings in the price of crude oil, making the A380 increasingly expensive to run.
On average, operating the leviathan A380 can cost anywhere between $26,000 to $29,000 per hour, but smaller competitors such as the Boing 787 Dreamliner only spend $11,000 to $15,000 per hour.
In order for an airliner to make a profit, they need to be able to consistently maximize their passenger numbers, a feat that is a lot harder for the Airbus’ 600 seat average capacity but a lot easier for smaller volume airliners such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which can fit a total of 200 passengers.
With the termination of the A380, a total of 3,500 engineering jobs were cut in a major blow to European aircraft manufacturers and a triumph for Boeing, who have consequently reclaimed their market-leading status.
- Crew: 2
- Capacity: Passengers: 575 typical, 853 max
- Length: 72.72 m (238 ft 7 in)
- Wingspan: 79.75 m (261 ft 8 in)
- Width: 7.14 m (23 ft 5 in)
- Height: 24.09 m (79 ft 0 in)
- Empty weight: 285,000 kg (628,317 lb)
- Max takeoff weight: 575,000 kg (1,267,658 lb)
- Powerplant: 4 × Trent 970-84/970B-84 turbofan, 348 kN (78,000 lbf) thrust each 332.44–356.81 kN (74,740–80,210 lbf)