RIP superjumbo: Airbus axes the A380

RIP superjumbo: Airbus axes the A380

After almost a dozen years, Airbus is pulling the plug on its A380 superjumbo.

The last of the double-deck behemoths will roll out of Airbus' hangar in 2021 and be handed over to Emirates, the stalwart airline which has essentially kept the A380 alive in recent years through repeated orders of the world's largest passenger plane jet.

However, like many other airlines, Emirates has been looking more closely at the new wave of fuel-efficient twin engine jets such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.

The boom was lowered when Emirates cancelled an outstanding order for 39 A380s – valued at a staggering US$17.4 billion based on Airbus' list price - which was necessary to keep the production line moving.

“As a result of this decision we have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production, despite all our sales efforts with other airlines in recent years," remarked Airbus CEO Tom Enders. "This leads to the end of A380 deliveries in 2021."

“The A380 is not only an outstanding engineering and industrial achievement. Passengers all over the world love to fly on this great aircraft," Enders added. "But, keep in mind that A380s will still roam the skies for many years to come and Airbus will of course continue to fully support the A380 operators."

Emirates will pick up the keys to the world's last 14 superjumbos over the next two years, having switched its Airbus order to 30 of the more modern A350-900 jets along with 40 of the A330neo models.

Recent weeks saw Qantas officially confirm its long-held decision to cancel the final eight A380s in its initial order of 20, while Qatar Airways said it would begin retiring its own A380s once they reached the 10-year mark, beginning in 2024.

Also read: Here are the Airbus A380 first class concept cabins you never saw

Airbus' decisicion means the iconic double-decker, which commonly seats more than 600 and has wowed travelers with in-flight showers and bars, is now entering its twilight years.

First imagined by Airbus in 1994 under the moniker A3XX, the superjumbo was a calculated roll of the heavy metal dice: was the air travel market large enough, and would that rich vein pump for long enough, for so ambitious an airliner?

Early backers included Emirates and Singapore Airlines, with smaller orders from Qantas (who eventually took just 12 of 20) and Virgin Atlantic (who took none).

Singapore Airlines flew the world's first commercial Airbus A380 between Singapore and Sydney

From its inception, the A380 was a grand European project. The wings, like those of all Airbus aircraft, came from the U.K., components were ferried across the continent from production sites in Germany and France. The giant fuselage tubes were taken by barge and flat-bed truck to the main facility in Toulouse, and the planes were then painted and kitted out in Hamburg.

Teams from across the region joined colleagues at other sites during crunch times, the quirky-looking Beluga freight planes would crisscross countries with parts, and the A380 was a popular backdrop at air shows for politicians celebrating Europe’s achievements.

When the plane finally embarked on its first commercial flight in late 2007, the financial crisis that would cripple global travel was already on the horizon. Some customers had second thoughts about whether the giant aircraft was the right choice for meager times, and cancellations started piling up.

Over its twelve years in the sky, the colossal A380 was a prestige project which became a heavy chain around Airbus' neck: a plane that won the hearts of passengers but never the broad support of airlines, in comparison to  smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft.

More than just an airplane

The A380 was always more than an aircraft, albeit a very large one. For Airbus, the superjumbo offered a commanding counterweight to Boeing, promising unparalleled space and luxury for increasingly congested airports and the skies above.

Airbus had watched enviously as Boeing monopolized the market for very large aircraft with its 747 jumbo, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this month and sold more than 1,500 units.

While Airbus was a major force in the single-aisle space with its A320 family, the prestigious long-distance and ultra-large aircraft segment remained the domain of its U.S. rival.

With passenger numbers rising every year and major new hubs opening in markets like Dubai, the A380 seemed the obvious choice to address the need for a large people carrier, while picking market share off Boeing.

Dubai did in fact turn into the A380s major sponsor, with Emirates ordering a total of more than 160 units, far in excess of any other airline. But ironically it was also Emirates that contributed to the A380’s decline and fall.

With Airbus increasingly reliant on a single customer for its flagship product, Emirates could make or break the program by ordering or canceling more A380s. When the airline decided to rethink its latest order for 20 units, Airbus saw no choice but to draw down production, given the lack of other buyers.

Rise of the 'big twins'

But over the past two decades, a new breed of aircraft gained popularity, making life harder for the A380 and the Boeing 747, which has also struggled with the latest passenger version of its iconic hump-backed plane.

While the A380 represented an Airbus bet on congestion driving demand for ever-larger aircraft in mega-hub airports, Boeing in the early 2000s decided the future would lie in smaller long-range planes that could economically overfly the hubs and directly connect smaller markets.

Its Boeing 777 model remains a best-seller, while the smaller 'fresh-thinking' 787 Dreamliner aligns with the Airbus A350 as next-generation twin-engine planes that pioneered the use of lightweight carbon fiber and efficient engines, helped airlines drastically cut fuel expenses and allowed them to use the planes with quicker turnaround times on smaller point-to-point routes.

The giant jumbo aircraft, by contrast, suddenly became too expensive, too heavy and too cumbersome to operate.

Markets where Airbus had hoped to sell its prestige plane hardly caught on or didn’t materialize at all. There isn’t a single US carrier that uses the A380, Chinese airlines have only bought the model in low numbers, and Japan – traditionally a big buyer of the Boeing 747 – has only recently taken delivery of its first A380.

Other carriers including Qantas and Air France also pared back their commitments.

No second-hand market

A less obvious part of the A380s problem is that there is no established second-hand market, typically the domain where prospective buyers can pick up jets at a discount. Singapore Airlines, the first commercial operator of the A380, learned this just recently, when it returned some aircraft back to its leasing partner, only to see them broken up in France for their parts.

“The A380s might be majestic, but they are going the same way as the magnificent ocean liners of the 1930s – the scrap yard,” Bill Blain, a strategist at Mint Partners in London, wrote in a research note. “Too costly to fly anything but near full, and unusable on any less dense sectors, they’ve struggled to find a niche.”

Airbus itself acknowledged that timing may not have been on its side with the A380. While busy airports like London Heathrow have become major magnets for the model, congestion has not been felt acutely enough around the world to shock more airlines into buying the biggest plane. And many operators don’t even use the model at full capacity.

Most airlines choose to transport no more than about 500 people, instead decking out the cabin with fancy features from in-flight bars to showers and multi-room suites that come with flourishes like butlers and sofas.

Such fripperies were a hit with passengers, who often went out of their way to book a flight on the A380, which promised a more spacious, quieter, more luxurious flight experience than older long-distance models. At a time when flying had lost its jet-age mystique and budget carriers sought to cram as many people onto a plane as possible, the A380 offered a throwback to an era of stylish travel, with plush cabin layouts and free-flowing champagne.

But in the end, it wasn’t passenger support, but the lack thereof from airlines that hastened the A380’s demise.

Like Concorde, the supersonic jetliner that inspired a generation of plane-spotting fans, the A380 was brought back down to earth by the hard truths of commercial board-room economics that gained the upper hand over popular aviation enthusiasm.

Also read: Here's how the Airbus A380 changed the premium travel experience

Additional reporting by Bloomberg

David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.
 

43 comments

  • Dave

    Grannular

    14 Feb, 2019 05:07 pm

    A passenger favorite, but an accountants nightmare. A true shame the economics couldn't work out.
    Members who gave thanks

    johnaboxall, ozavanti

  • kimshep

    kimshep

    15 Feb, 2019 10:20 am

    Actually, the economics have worked out quite well (for QF and EK, since the frame is ideally suited to their ULH routes and hub-to-hub usage) over the years since introduction.

    Sure, the A350 and B787 have improved upon CASM and that is the cost of technical innovation, which will continue to occur. However, given that innovation now occurs more quickly and conversely, ordering-to-delivery plans lengthen, it doesn't mean that the A380 is hideously 'un-economic'.
    Irrespective of CASM improvements, you can't buy every new frame with improved specs immediately at will. Especially at QF where depreciation schedules are determined by Government and staged at longer periods than competitors such as EK and SQ. Even these companies are struggling with this.

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  • AB__CD

    AB__CD

    16 Feb, 2019 12:13 am

    I don't think the A380 was the right choice for QF, and it is reflected in why it deferred its order for the remaining 8 jets. It should have bought the 777-300ER from the start; if it had a fleet of 20-25 such jets, I imagine its network would now extend deeper into North America with multiple daily frequencies, at least to the level of EVA/China Airlines.
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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    16 Feb, 2019 11:02 am

    Two successive QF CEO's - Dixon and Joyce - have both nay-sayed the B777-300ER over many years, despite both having differing ideas (network, fleet and financial) on how QF should be run.

    Dixon's policy of consolidating traffic at LAX, SFO, HNL and providing daily service to JFK has served the airline well. Joyce added DFW which has been successful, but has had some effect in reducing the strength of LAX and SFO. The potential additions of ORD and/or SEA will see further shrinkage at LAX and SFO.

    If you are going to replace A380 services to two USA hub services with P2P, you'd do it with B787's rather than with vastly larger B777-300ER's, I would think. Overcapacity on USA-Australia routes in general, is the reason you are now seeing UA reduce daily services to SYD right now.
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  • Harrison Mendes

    hmendes

    14 Feb, 2019 05:10 pm

    Too many airlines which didn’t need them purchased them..... Thai, Malaysian, China Southern, Korean, Asiana.....
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  • Mark

    Mightyreds

    14 Feb, 2019 05:13 pm

    Truly a great aircraft to fly on and I for one am very pleased we still have at least a decade of this in our skies. A great piece of engineering and a shame to see the end of production.
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  • LatteLaptopLoon

    LatteLaptopLoon

    14 Feb, 2019 05:30 pm

    Without Emirates, I wonder if this aircraft would have made Airbus almost bankrupt.
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  • Yvan J Drake

    MRYJDrake

    15 Feb, 2019 09:05 am

    I don't think "almost" is even a factor. Without EK buying buttloads of them, I'm fairly confident they'd have barely broken even on the R&D
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  • mo

    mo

    14 Feb, 2019 05:38 pm

    Very comfortable and enjoyable aircraft. Much nicer streamlined appearance than the humpy 747. Sad to see it go :/
    Member who gave thanks

    fftraveltimes

  • Adam T

    AT

    14 Feb, 2019 05:42 pm

    No more A380s and no more 747s, what an absolute shame.
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  • Himeno

    Himeno

    14 Feb, 2019 05:43 pm

    Not much of a surprise.

    If a few things had been different (for example, getting a matching 747/777 "heavy" aircraft rating instead of the "super" rating - which has only lead to increased wait times and spacing requirements when A380s are using runways), things could have gone differently.

    Maybe they could have gotten some more orders if they had made a NEO version?
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  • Yvan J Drake

    MRYJDrake

    15 Feb, 2019 09:06 am

    They tried to pitch an A380 Plus, but I suspect that was too little too late.
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  • Peggy Hayes

    Pegasus

    14 Feb, 2019 05:51 pm

    I flew from BNE to SYD to catch my first A380, QF1, flight to LHR. Using points, my upgrade to First was approved. Happy dancing in the QF lounge. (Dancing was perfomed by me, in case you are wondering.)

    The plane was breathtaking. And yet considering I adored the 747 with its humpback profile, there was such a world of difference.

    It was the first time I had a three-point seatbelt on an aircraft. The first time I watched take off and landing on the tail cam.

    And it was so quiet. When you were on a 747 or large aircraft you'd be galumphing down the runway and eventually you'd think to yourself, "we're not ever going to take off" until you finally lumbered off into the sky.

    The A380 lifted off effortlessly. Whoosh. And you're in flight. I thought it magical.

    I don't fly as much nowadays as we've retired to the UK and travel more frequently by the fantastic European trains. But the A380 will always hold a very, very large place in my heart.
    Members who gave thanks

    JKH, NickCorr

  • Aidan

    Aidan

    14 Feb, 2019 06:04 pm

    Sad moment. I wonder if in 20 years the demand for this size plane will return. Would be interesting how a more modern A380 would be designed, with newer tech developments.
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  • Pablo

    Pabs

    14 Feb, 2019 06:13 pm

    Such a shame that another icon of the skies is dead thanks to the world now being run by bean counters who only care about $$s and bonuses.
    Having flown on most Airbus and Boeing models made (except the old A300 and B707) the 380 is by far the best plane to fly in
    Member who gave thanks

    JKH

  • James O'Mahony

    Ourmanin

    14 Feb, 2019 08:55 pm

    As sad as I am to see it go, the reality is that it just doesn't fit the economics of modern aviation demands. I'd love it if my Uber driver picked me up in a Range Rover, but those economics don't fit his business either. All businesses are (or should be) run to make money. Ironically the only airline that ever really made this plane work is one that never had to worry about shareholders!!! But don't get me wrong - it's a wonderful plane to be a passenger in.
    Member who gave thanks

    JKH

  • Effiomboy

    Melvin

    14 Feb, 2019 06:40 pm

    It is such a shame to see A380s phasing out from the sky over the next decade or so. No difference to the Concord. One of the biggest achievements in aviation history that has to come to rest due to poor return of beans. No more A380, no more 747 - looks like all of us will need to embrace ourselves in tighter (small to medium) aircrafts such as A350, 787, 777, 797 in coming decades just to ensure the airlines' books are sustainable. To operate a A380 cost 10x the amount of a 737. Understandable with A380, any diversion which requires airlines to host 500 pax in hotel can be a nightmare for them. The luxury, steadiness of the aircraft, availability of a bar, shower (for EK) and extra head room all add a smile to one's journey. With more and more airlines thinking of doing super long haul (SYD - JFK and SYD - LHR), it would be ridiculous to be stuck in those metal fuselage for over 20 hours without a bar or bigger hang out area. I suppose if we wanted such luxury, we should go on a cruise instead and let jets bring us from point A to B as fast as they can with minimum stop overs.
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  • profcarrousel

    profcarrousel

    14 Feb, 2019 07:35 pm

    No doubt about it, my favourite plane.
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  • Albinoni1967

    Albinoni1967

    14 Feb, 2019 08:04 pm

    I've never been in a A380 but really dying to, just for the fun and see what their like. The problem is I live in Perth and would like to go to Singapore in one, but unfortunately Singapore Airlines only seem to use their A330 and 777 from Perth to Singapore. I'm not even sure if Emirates fly them to Perth
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  • Chris_PER

    Chris_PER

    14 Feb, 2019 08:44 pm

    You have Qatar and Emirates A380 to Perth on a daily basis
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  • markpk

    markpk

    14 Feb, 2019 08:20 pm

    I know Richard de Crespigny sometimes lurks these halls - be interesting to hear his insights on this decision!
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  • UpUpAndAway

    UpUpAndAway

    14 Feb, 2019 08:24 pm

    Didn't Airbus say the A380 would break Boeing?
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  • nige00160

    nige00160

    15 Feb, 2019 01:03 am

    Somewhat ironically, it appears that production of the a380 will now cease before that of the 747.

    Boeing currently has 24 747-8's on its production backlog - which will likely mean that they will keep that production line going through to 2022. (Thanks to demand for 747's as freighters)

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  • Charles

    SteveCF

    14 Feb, 2019 10:31 pm

    Airbus must hate the Boeing 777, it made the A340 obsolete in the 90’s and early 2000’s and there’s an argument the economics of the 777x has done it to the A380.
    Whether you’re a Boeing fan or you’re not, they got it right investing their money into the Dreamliner, refining the 747 to be attractive to the cargo market and investing in the new 777x.
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  • Lime_Tang

    Lime_Tang

    14 Feb, 2019 10:57 pm

    Airbus isn't the only one who hates the 777. Noisy and cramped.... but bean counters rule I'm afraid!
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  • Albinoni1967

    Albinoni1967

    15 Feb, 2019 08:53 am

    Didn't know that the 777 was noisy and cramped, a few people that I know have flown it and said it's a beautiful aircraft to fly in. Mind you I've never ever been in one, really want to, but just haven't. Qantas never bought any which is a shame
    Member who gave thanks

    Speedbird

  • Lime_Tang

    Lime_Tang

    15 Feb, 2019 09:58 pm

    14 hours in 10 abreast Y class will remove all illusions. Unfortunately there is no hiding the fact it's a noisy aircraft, I have never been able to sleep on one.
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  • Mark

    Mightyreds

    14 Feb, 2019 10:59 pm

    Maybe better with the economics, but the traveling public clearly have their preferred aircraft to travel on in today’s fleet, and Airbus wins hands down.
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  • Jason Bird

    Speedbird

    18 Feb, 2019 10:39 am

    “they got it right investing their money into the Dreamliner”

    Ahhh last time I checked, while the “Nightmareliner” might be selling well.. it also cost Boeing a kings ransom to build.. and it’s only because of some very tricky accounting witch craft on Boeing’s part that they “seem” to be making money. The truth is they aren’t.. even after selling in excess of 1500 planes.

    So good investment? I think not!!
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  • Charles

    SteveCF

    6 Mar, 2019 06:13 pm

    Maybe have a look at there share performance over the last decade and read their financials mate.
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  • GregXL

    GregXL

    15 Feb, 2019 01:09 am

    Airbus are more or less at the end of all their current development programs. So what come next ? Perhaps a 777x competitor, that is just a bit wider.
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  • Balta  Caceres

    Aircraft Lover

    15 Feb, 2019 02:14 am

    I love flying the A-380, I think that aircraft is especially quiet and stable


    She handles severe turbulence smoothly


    I feel sorry for the 3.500+ Airbus employees that are involved in the A-380 project, I hope all these highly qualified workers will be relocated

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  • fftraveltimes

    fftraveltimes

    15 Feb, 2019 09:08 am

    I feel rather ill by the news. The last of aviation innovation out the window. Sure efficiency in fuel etc are nice but nothing that stands out as a great flying experience with the A350, B787, etc. Like the Concorde and B747 before it, A380 is an aircraft that generates excitement and is a thrill to fly.
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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    15 Feb, 2019 09:41 am

    Ah, Bloomberg - poor reporting and lacking research. So many errors in this article.


    1. " Emirates has been shifting towards the new wave of fuel-efficient twin engine jets such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787. "
    Wrong. EK cancelled it's A350 order in 2014 without taking a single frame. It's new order was made yesterday as a direct result of the A380 cancellation - and it's B787 order is also quite recent.

    2. "This saw Emirates cancel an outstanding order of 39 A380's"
    Wrong attribution. Given the inability of Rolls Royce to resolve issues with engines for the most recent firm EK order of 20, this was the real reason for the cancellation. Had this been able to be resolved, it is possible that the EK A380 orders would have stayed.

    3. "with smaller orders from Qantas (who eventually took just eight of 20)".
    Er .. incorrect. QF took 12 frames, not 8.

    4. "Singapore Airlines, the first commercial operator of the A380, learned this just recently, when it returned some aircraft back to its leasing partner, only to see them broken up in France for their parts."

    Again wrong. SQ didn't learn any lesson - the lessor company was the learner. Further, of the 5 returned, only ONE (1) has been broken up. The remaining 4 are stored for possible leasing.

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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    15 Feb, 2019 10:02 am

    Ironically, despite the article stating that "there is no second-hand market" (not unusual given that the A380 program is only 10 years old), the program cancellation may well - as in the B717 rarity - actually create a second hand market.


    It is well known that British Airways (BA) is still sniffing around for additional frames, having earlier last week told Airbus that they would take more than the 12 they have, if Airbus were able to sharpen their price.

    Similarly, QF's A380 fleet is stretched to the max .. and another two would not hurt them ie: one rotational frame is always in maintenance, covering 1 out of service each month over 12 months and the other could be used for SYD-HKG daily rotation to ease the prospect of having cancellations. As the Australia-LHR market continues to recover (and EK and EY cancel more A380 services) may QF will need to re-instate MEL-LHR via SIN again. Perhaps one or two of the MH birds - with low usage and a newer provenance, might just seem more attractive in the near future.


    It's also interesting that Air France's recent headline-making decision to return 5 frames to their leasing company has been very quietly wound back to only three (3) frames.

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  • Jedinak K

    Jedinak K

    15 Feb, 2019 01:35 pm

    Alan Joyce has repeatedly stated that they have no use for more than 12 A380s. If they are looking to increase capacity, one would think it would be through the purchase of the newer twin jets (B777X or A350-1000).
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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    15 Feb, 2019 02:03 pm

    Not so much about increasing capacity, but more about ensuring that existing schedules can be maintained and secured with appropriate fleet numbers and not experiencing service interruptions / cancellations over busy periods such as the past two Christmas periods. Also, add in the additional route flexibility offered.

    Further, the suggestion of using 'Project Sunrise' frames (nominal) ULH premium heavy non-stops vs. core 1 stop routes such as SYD-SIN-LHR - would be an abuse of such frames on routes to HKG, SIN and LAX. DFW would be marginal.

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  • Mark

    Mightyreds

    15 Feb, 2019 12:23 pm

    David, I have noticed a mistake in the above article. See below.

    Early backers included Emirates and Singapore Airlines, with smaller orders from Qantas (who eventually took just eight of 20) and Virgin Atlantic (who took none).

    Qantas has taken 12 of their total order of 20, not 8 as stated.
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  • David Flynn

    David

    15 Feb, 2019 12:31 pm

    Thanks, that's now fixed.
    No member give thanks

  • Mark  Barbeliuk

    Mark B.

    18 Feb, 2019 01:22 pm

    The irony would be if Boeing actually picked up passenger 747-8 orders. Boeing has had half a century to write off 747 development costs so presumably it has built-in economies of scale and time the A380 creators could only dream of, not to mention an established second hand market and freighter market. The European makers have always had cutting edge products (Caravelle, Concorde, Comet etc) either doomed because of their timing or the fact Yankee know how, marketing and understanding of markets and economic smarts will usually prevail.
    No member give thanks

  • Chris

    flychrisfly

    18 Feb, 2019 02:12 pm

    I believe, and am happy to be corrected, that part of the poor economics of the A380 is that it was built to be extended. That is, the airframe is strong enough (ie. heavy) to support an extended version of the plane without any significant reengineering
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  • kimshep

    kimshep

    19 Feb, 2019 11:50 am

    The originally designed (but never built) frame was the A380-900, which was larger. The A380-800 that was built is, in fact, a 'shrink' of the original -900 design, by having a marginally shorter fuselage.
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  • John Goss

    Travelwell

    20 Feb, 2019 09:47 pm

    Saddest day for the passenger. Does anyone remember what it was like trying to find seats at short notice during peak periods prior to the A380.??? It is a saviour as far as I am concerned in more ways than one. This plane is not uneconomic just not the 'most' profitable out there. With its demise we will see less capacity on routes meaning less supply and higher prices guaranteed by the time these aircraft are retired and more people will be wanting to travel than ever. 787 sardineliner 777X A350 will never have the sense of space of an A380. The 747 gave air travel to the middle class. The A380 let us find seats all year and unsurpassed space. Now the airlines will be profiting by going contrary to that thinking meaning your readers David will find it harder to fly their preferred airline and hence keep f/f status and earn points. Yuk all round.
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18 Jul, 2019 01:14 am

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