Like the dinosaurs, super-jumbo jets were displaced by smaller and more nimble competitors
With seating for up to 800 passengers between two decks, Airbus’ A380 super-jumbo jet was envisioned in 2000 as a flagship aircraft for the European company, offering a luxurious experience for long-distance flights.
But over time, smaller twin-engine planes became more fuel efficient and started handling longer, transoceanic routes.
On Thursday, Airbus said it would wind down production of the double-decked A380 — the largest commercial passenger jet ever — with a final delivery set for 2021. The decision comes about a year after the last Boeing 747 jumbo jet operated by a U.S. airline made its final flight.
Once competitors, the A380 and the 747 are now giants in a market no longer dominated by big planes.
“These things were born to die,” Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at market research firm Teal Group, said of the A380. “By the time this thing got going, the days of the big planes were clearly the past, fading in the rearview mirror.”
Airbus launched the A380 program in 2000 in an attempt to unseat Boeing Co.’s decades-long domination of the large commercial aircraft market. At the time, the 420-seat 747 was the world’s largest airliner and had been on the market for more than 30 years.
The two companies were betting on two different visions of air travel. Airbus said airlines would want to ferry more passengers at a time through major “hub” airports — with connections, or “spokes,” to smaller markets — as a way to deal with increased congestion. In contrast, Boeing favored moving to more direct, point-to-point routes using smaller planes and smaller airports.
Boeing, in essence, was proven right.
Soon after the A380’s launch, Boeing in 2003 announced it would develop what became the 787 Dreamliner. The mid-sized, twin-engine plane used new engines and carbon materials to offer more fuel efficiency. That was followed by Airbus’ own entrant, the A350, as well as the smaller A330neo and Boeing 737 Max, among others, Scott Hamilton, founder of aviation consulting firm Leeham Co., said on his company blog.
“Right after it, all of the other long-range, twin-aisle airplanes launched and totally fragmented the market,” he said in an interview. “It was death by a thousand cuts.”
Airlines gravitated toward point-to-point travel, which takes smaller planes, Aboulafia said. Twin-engine planes were also later certified to fly over the ocean.
When the A380 made its public debut in 2005, Boeing also tried to counter by announcing plans for an updated version of the 747, though airlines were uninterested in what they saw as an outdated plane.
By 2017, Airbus was working through a dwindling backlog of A380 orders. Boeing eventually chose to market the 747 as a cargo plane, emphasizing its carrying capacity and the aircraft’s hinged nose door that could accommodate larger loads.
The decisive blow for the A380 was a decision by Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier that described itself in August as the world’s largest operator of A380s. The airline said at the time that it had operated A380s for 10 years and used them to carry more than 105 million passengers.
Emirates’ interest in the giant jets was knit into its growth plans. Whenever the airline was able to get a slot at a hub, it wanted to put the largest possible plane there to ferry higher numbers of passengers, Aboulafia said. “They had an opportunity to turn Dubai into the center of the airline universe,” he said.
But on Thursday, Emirates said it would reduce its order book of A380 aircraft from 162 planes to 123. In a press release from Airbus, the airline cited a “review of its operations” and “developments in aircraft and engine technologies” as the reasoning behind its decision.
Instead, Emirates said it would order 40 A330-900 and 30 A350-900 aircraft. The A330-900 seats about 287 passengers, while the A350-900 has room for 325.
“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,” Airbus Chief Executive Tom Enders said in the statement. “Today’s announcement is painful for us and the A380 communities worldwide.”
Airbus builds portions of the A380 in a number of locations, including Germany for major component assembly and France for final assembly. The company said up to 3,500 jobs could be affected over the next three years.
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