Is the Airbus A380 a Failure?

The Airbus A380 is cool. Efficient Asian Man says “the 747 is iconic while the A380 looks like a retarded goldfish” but the whale is huge and is amazing to fly.

I still think it feels bizarre at takeoff, flying on the upper deck. It feels underpowered as it glides into the sky, it’s too smooth.

Boarding the entire upper deck from separate jet bridges, you almost don’t realize that there’s a full length plane beneath you.

You can pack it in densely or add amenities like Emirates has done with the shower, or Etihad is doing with their 3-bedroom residence (which isn’t as insane as it sounds, since it leverages what is mostly otherwise dead space).

A New York Times story this weekend contends, though, that overall the A380 is a failure.

  • There are no buyers in the U.S., South America, or Africa. They’ve barely penetrated China or Japan.
  • In 7 years Airbus has delivered only 138 planes to 11 airlines.
  • Word is the plane is being discounted by 50% off list. While aircraft manufactures don’t really sell for list, that’s still a significant discount and early buyers generally get ‘most favored nation’ status where future discounted sales entail rebates to early buyers who may have paid more.

The plane allows British Airways to reduce Los Angeles flights from 3 to 2, saving a slot at Heathrow. But how many places does something like that work? For US airlines the longest haul operations are to Asia, but there aren’t many airlines with multiple flights to the same cities in Asia. London Heathrow is an archetypical airport for A380 operations. So is Tokyo Narita but neither JAL nor ANA is flying the plane.

New York JFK might be, but no US airline has made the move. While the Times quotes a far from disinterested party suggesting United would be a great candidate to fly the plane to Asia, their growth is coming from point-to-point operations that allow the airline to grow its footprint to cities like Chengdu, and that allow them to expand their flying to more of their hubs like Denver.

The only airline whose strategy is centered around the aircraft is Emirates. But does it even make sense for Emirates? At the number of A380 aircraft they already have coming online, they’re throwing it at cities like Dallas.

As it is they aren’t filling their 777. They’re increasing capacity on the route, even as they face competition for Dallas to and through the Middle East with Etihad and Qatar.

Emirates’ Dallas – Dubai A380 schedule is for daily service. Their strategy is different from Qantas. When Emirates put an A380 on Toronto – Dubai, they scaled back to 3 flights a week. Qantas is moving their Dallas – Syndey flight from daily on a 747 to six times weekly on an A380.

I love experiencing the A380, and I love more capacity when that’s the route airlines go in operating the plane. Capacity means unsold seats and more award space. But it’s not clear the aircraft is a win for the airlines themselves, or for Airbus.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I wouln’t go as far as calling it a failure. Since 1966 Boeing has produced around 1500 747s. That’s 31 a year. And the 747 did not have any competitors until Airbus launched the 380 7 years ago.

  2. “I still think it feels bizarre at takeoff, flying on the upper deck. It feels underpowered as it glides into the sky, it’s too smooth.”

    That was my very same reaction when first (and subsequently) flying the A380. I kept thinking, when are we going to get up to speed? When is the captain going to give the engines full throttle? It felt like coitus without orgasm!

    Don’t get me wrong, the A380 is an impressive aircraft, in an boxy, mega-cruise-ship-kind of-way. But I don’t know why the iconic 747 wasn’t redesigned to be more energy efficient, yet still maintain it’s strong and stalwartly profile. I’m still not onboard with those lithium batteries in the 787…

  3. I still can’t believe Air Austral ordered 2 of them. Their only route on which that’s possibly doable is to Paris. They have 14 flights in the next 7 days and only one flight is *NOT* J9 and Y9 on a 777.

    What are they going to do with more capacity?

  4. I don’t think you want to include 747 orders for the past few years to compare success vs failure. The current version, the 747-8, is hardly a model of success.

  5. The plane may not be a win for the airlines or for Airbus and I don’t think it’s a win for me as a passenger either. It creates the potential for more award space but it also has meant less frequency on some routes. I personally try to avoid routes that are less than daily because of the potential for getting stuck for an extended period of time during irregular operations, mechanical, missed flight, etc.

    The Emirates Toronto-Dubai flight on an A380 is probably the most luxurious service offered on the route (in Business or First), but it’s also the least convenient and flexible.

  6. Who told you that EK isn’t filling their 777’s? The SFO-DXB fights are almost always full of people going to India. That’s why they are putting an a380 there. (SF area is full of Indians)

  7. The economics of an airplane model counts from the day it is launched, so even if there are many new elements (like any new version of an aircraft), the design is still from the mid 60s.

    The main reason the 747-8 has not sold as well as 747-400 has little to do with the A380. The 747-8 is closer to the 77W in size than the A380, so the main reason the 747-8 is not selling as well as the -400 is that Boeing has made such a great 2 engine product in the 77W, much more efficient and almost as many passengers so the airlines naturally prefers that model

    Still, Boeing has received 120 orders for the 747-8, mostly cargo because the A380 cannot even transport ping pong balls, that’s how bad it is as a cargo plane.

  8. Having flown for the first time in the A380 from SIN to FRA in upper deck business, I can say I would not fly the A380 again unless that was my only option. I agree with the smooth take off, quite nature of the engines, and cool factor from flying in the world’s largest passenger plane but the experience from boarding, to the sheer number of passengers, to the fact I had to wait to use the loo. In fact, I had to get a FA top open the back gate so I could go downstairs and use the Economy bathroom and that is frankly unacceptable when flying business. Overall I felt there were too many people and, even in business, there was no personal touch – the FAs ran the cabin efficiently, politely and very well but without any personalization that once normally gets in business class. My next flight, a few hours later from FRA-ORD was on the new 747-800 on Lufthansa (upper deck). Now that was an awesome experience and I would go out of my way to fly the new 800 series upper deck again. Pretty much the exact opposite of what I experienced on the A380.

    Sad to say, from my singular perspective, the 380 is not an aircraft I’d fly again unless it was in a first suite – long haul. That said, if it was a short-haul flight of 4 hours or less, I’d probably be fine in any class of service.

  9. Actually the Boeing 747 was developed as a secondary product to the SST. When the SST was cancelled, Boeing focused its attention on the 747. Many of 747 design features also came from the Boeing proposal for the US Air Force “C5A”. Afterwards the 747 was almost totally developed for PanAm. Other airlines bought 747, to be competitive, but all the domestic carriers other than PanAm removed the 747 from their fleets. The recession of ’69-’70 and the following oil crisis caused many airlines to be flying partially full 747s. The more fuel efficient DC10 and L1011 also drew sales from the 747. It wasn’t until B7474-400 was developed that the B747 really took off. More efficient jet engines and the 2 person crew made the B747-400 the workhorse that it became. In the’90s, the 777 wasn’t the successful workhorse that it is today. It takes time for an airplane to hit sales and usage momentum. Eventually it will happen for the A380. The world economy isn’t growing fast enough right now, but eventually the economy will take off and the A380 will grow with that.

  10. Emirates did not “scale back” Toronto flights to 3x weekly when they put the A380 in there. The UAE-Canada bilateral agreement restricts them to no more than this number of weekly flights. The 3x weekly 380 was an upgrade from the 3x weekly 77W that preceded it on the route. Believe me, Emirates would be in there with a daily 380 the moment the Canadians permitted it.

  11. I read the original NYT article and for a change I think the NYT got it right in regards to airlines and the business aspect of airlines and flying

  12. Seriously, why would you care what the OUTSIDE of the plane looks like? As a PASSENGER, I’m more concerned about how the INSIDE feels. So far in my A380 vs B747 experience, I’d take the A380 any day of the week.

  13. I agree JohnB – given global economic growth, the A380 will thrive. Such stability requires much less international war/crisis/terror/stupidity than today. The majority wants economic success and travel. If the world is so fortunate, the A380 will bring us more luxurious configurations and more availability of premium awards.

  14. If one wants to experience EK 380 F at a reasonable price the HKG-BKK tag-on is reasonably priced at about US$657

  15. I reckon they will all be parked in the desert within 10 years. 4 engines just don’t make sense anymore unless perhaps you have a source of free gasoline.

  16. @Sean M – oh no doubt they would run more if they could, i was just suggesting that the A380 swap actually made some sense given the constraints. they would unquestionably do an idiotic thin with toronto the way they’re doing in dallas if given the chance..

  17. @Gary – You’d be surprised how many people in Emirates also think that the Dallas flight is idiotic but are too afraid to stand up to Tim. He may not be as notorious as Akbar, but he has a pretty large ego of his own. 🙂

  18. I could MAYBE see the Dallas flight (on second thought, not on an A380 without a partner there providing feed) if there wasn’t ALSO an Etihad flight coming in December and a Qatar flight. DFW is a good market, but it’s not as good an O/D market for the Mideast as Houston is. And Etihad and Qatar at least both partner with AA…

  19. The A380 was developed to “carry more passengers” to override the higher cost of fuel. Result, an utter disaster. I flew the A380 once, from ICN-HKG on KE. Delayed because of mechanical, finally the behemoth got off the ground, had to fly in Y with an exit row seat, cramped, but the worst part was the landing. A BIG BANG because it is nothing but a giant rock of weight.

    The alternative? The sleek, smooth, comfortable, fuel efficient, smaller Boeing 787. No brainer there (although I don’t like having to put the lid on the toilet down every time a flush is required—-they can fix that easy).

    Dump the A380, bring back a fuel efficient Concorde. And impeach Obama. Thanks.

  20. EK only got three slots at YYZ because AC whined about the competition and the Canadian government caved. Hopefully, things will change now that relations with the UAE are better again.

    These birds will be retired early. There is no chance ever coming close to the life cycles of the B747 or B777 now. Only airlines with large market point to point routes or those that are heavily subsidized can afford to run them in any significant numbers. And there is no used market, nor will they be cargo carriers, so most will end up in Arizona sooner rather than later.

  21. The A380 will be a financial failure for both Airbus and for the airlines that operate it. For Airbus because it won’t sell enough. For the airlines because while it can work at peak times, it doesn’t work off-peak. It’s more efficient operate smaller aircraft and either operate less frequency off-peak or only sell high fares at peak. There just aren’t enough markets to fly 500+ seats year-round.

    Also, the aircraft is too ugly to be profitable 😉

  22. The basic problem in the US is that only a few airports can handle the behemoth.

    Plus it’s made for long haul flights. Only the East Coast to Alaska or Hawaii are viable options for domestic distance. And only Hawaii would have the turnover of passengers to equate the cost of flying it there.

    Also many of the airlines which may have benefitted from it have merged & now have a surplus of aircraft to use. I suppose if there was a trade-in option more US airlines would grab one or two.

  23. Gate facilities are the least of the A380’s problems. If it were economically viable, the airports would build all the facilities it needs. They want flights.

  24. as a person working in the urban development i think the a380 has a great future and could be the new a320.
    if you don t believe in a high population growth your dreaming.

  25. It’s too early to tell. I always felt the purpose of the A380 is for hub-to-hub flights (for 3-class a380s) or for high-density low-yield routes (for 2-class a380s). In addition, I don’t think Airbus ever envisioned an airline having all a380s as its carrier. Instead, the ideal is for every airline to buy at least 3-5 A380s and fly them on the most premium hub-to-hub routes.

    As far as premium airlines go, the only ones not to have the A380 are Cathay Pacific, JAL, and ANA. I feel JAL/ANA have had a stronger relationship with Boeing and CX, not sure why at all. Given HKG gets a lot of A380s, the airport can certainly handle them.

  26. There are a number of airlines that ordered the A380 that now wish they hadn’t. AF LH QF SQ among them. They don’t have enough routes that warrant an aircraft that large, and could just as easily serve such routes with the 77W, if need be double daily or 10x/week. They don’t have severe slot constraints that justify a sub fleet that becomes problematic to operate off-peak.

  27. @joey

    One of the reasons that CX hasn’t ordered the A380 and is loading up on 777s and A350s, despite HKG being a slot constrained airport, is cargo. Both the 777 and A350 can take more cargo and this is a major factor in CX’s business. It’s also been an increasing factor in many airlines’ purchasing decisions.

  28. The bigger they are, the harder they fall! I shutter at the thought of what’s to come. Give me a smaller aircraft with range, service and comfort any day.

  29. Seriously? You are comparing the A380 to the 747??

    Get out of here. There is no comparison.

  30. Odd to say but First Class while semi-luxurious (I’ve flown it on Emirates and Lufthansa) is strangely stark. Almost as cheerful as the tomb of the Medici, if you’re traveling with someone you nearly need to tear down a wall. LH did a far better job in all areas but their excellent service cannot conceal that it’s like having dinner with Johah in the Whale. And a madhouse when we landed in SFO as to baggage claim and customs. Emirates for all their personally vaunted excellence just rises above mediocre. In some sort of analysis, Airbus makes too many types of aircraft trying to cover every possibility. If they were the only one building planes, this might work but, beyond Boeing, they have nothing to match Embraer or any of the third tier manufacturers who are selling the 50 to 100 pssgs models as fast as they can make them. I look for the new Sukhoi 100 to penetrate the US market. Interesting to note that Boeing and Sukhoi have a “relationship” that could easily give Big B a competitor in the small to mid range class. And the little discussed issue of how Airbus made deals with national carriers that allow their planes to move into fleets for almost nothing. Eventually this comes back to haunt the bottom line when all those carriers who took the candy deal can’t pay.

  31. As a Jet pilot I would be interested to fly it once. Otherwise, I dread the coming accident. Boeing did right by building a smaller but faster airliner. Who needs to travel even 16 hours with such a large crowd? Which airport needs an giant flying elephant to fit in very tight spaces? Why tax the already tight security protocols? It could be a troop carrier! I can see the US Army buying 4 – 10.

  32. Boeing’s lead designer debunks the myth that the USAF CX competition was the basis for the 747:

    “I should add that fostering large high-bypass engines was all that the USAF C-5 competition contributed to the Boeing 747, as my new airplane would be called. Time and again there appears in print the logical but false assumption that Boeing took its losing military C-5 bid and revamped it as the commercial 747. In fact, the 747 would be an entirely original design that owes nothing to the C-5.”

  33. With limited exceptions, airlines see two-engine planes as more appropriate than larger four-engine ones. A few comments suggest the A380 makes sense for JL and CX, but JL has eliminated four-engine planes, and CX is in the process of retiring theirs. Personally, I love the 747, and I appreciate the convenience of direct upper-deck boarding on the A380, but their future role seems limited.

  34. what a bunch of silly hate comments…
    you guys have to accept the fact that good old USA is falling behind in technology big time.

    tallest building in the world (NOT USA anymore)
    biggest plane in the world (NOT USA anymore)
    largest economy in the world (NOT USA anymore)

    + NASA is bankrupt depending on Soviet-era Russian rockets
    the Russian Soyuz is the sole means of transportation, how pathetic is that ?

  35. Why I will NOT fly A 380 again :
    I do not know much about the view from the upper deck ; I flew economy class as no body else pays for me .But my flight from San Francisco to Begaluru ,India in Emirates A 380 was a nightmare .

    Service was non existent : economy class passengers were non priority ,obviously . But I am used getting far better service in Cathay Pacific for a better price . I don’t care if it is 747 or A 380 so long as I am treated with some respect as a paying customer, albeit economy class.

    On my return trip from Bengaluru, the Dubai to San Francisco flight was much delayed ,waiting for connecting passengers.This is not surprising at all . Any flight which has such huge number of passengers ,will have to have feeder flights . More the number of feeder flights, more the likelihood of delays and missed connections . So ,if I have a critical connection to make , I would not take this flight ,never mind the in- flight bar ,even if offered free .

  36. I just see this aircraft as a Rich Persons Long Haul Airlines. Jennifer Aniston dreaming she was on a regular chattel aircraft with the F/A laughing at when she asked where the shower is. Then to wake up and find herself in her private cabin and going for a Martini at the aircraft’s bar (I thought Muslims didn’t serve or drink Liquor. Tech Speaking it’s a wonder of the air, piece of art. Someone earlier asked why didn’t Boeing upgrade the 747. They. Its called the 747-800 with a different wing, stretched a bit. But its sales are low too. the Airlines want two engine long haulers to save fuel. i think the 380 is amazing, but costs will kill it. The should have kept Concorde flying. I hear Russia might bring back the Tu-144 Concordski. They will use engines made from the place the engines of her supersonic bomber was/is made and pull up he nose and use several HD Cameras to show the pilots on HD LCD screens arranged in an airline window pattern to see what ahead of them and small side windows to see outside. Removing that droop equipt. will save thousands of pounds in weight.ahead. They can do it. The have about 12 in storage.

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