European aviation powerhouse, Airbus, announced, not unexpectedly, that they would cease production of the A380 Super Jumbo.
The huge double-decker A380 was set to revolutionise air travel in the new millennium and give stiff competition to the Boeing 747 Jumbo. Able to carry over 500 passengers across long distances, the A380 looked like a sure bet in that niche market. Launched in 2008 by Singapore Airlines, the future looked hopeful with orders from many of the worlds prestigious airlines. Notably, Middle Eastern airline giant, Emirates, ordered a whopping 162 airframes. Airbus expected to sell around 1,200 A380s in order to recoup development cost, and of course, turn a profit. The actuality is that they have not even achieved a quarter of this target. As at the 31st of January 2019, 234 A380s have been delivered with 232 in active service. Of these 106 are with Emirates.
Where did Airbus go wrong? Like anything in the commercial world, the economics no longer stack up. The high price of the aircraft, coupled with the extensive upgrades required at airfields, before they can accommodate the Super Jumbo, led to very high overheads. Aviation, like most industries with an accent on technology, are ever changing. It can be very difficult to predict future trends, and Airbus is not alone in this. Boeing also got burned by this trend with their 747-8i. Designed as the descendant of the much loved 747, it met with a very lukewarm reception and has since ceased production. Boeing at least could fall back on the original failsafe of the 747, by creating a freighter version of the 747-8. This has done slightly better. The bubble on the original 747 was to enable a freighter version to be loaded through an opening nose door. They didn’t have faith that the passenger version would sell, so took an “each way bet”.
The focus seems to be now moving toward the long-range twin-jets. Both Boeing and Airbus have a wide range of offerings in this space, which offer airlines a wide choice across their whole network. The economics of filling one very large aircraft to the point of profitability can very challenging. With slightly smaller aircraft, routes can be flown more frequently and economically. Today’s giant twins like the Airbus A350-11 and the Boeing 777-9, are coming online and are enabling airlines to offer non-stop services between cities where it has not been possible in the past. Airlines, like QANTAS, are rethinking their strategy and proposing services that to date have not been possible.
Only a few days ago QANTAS announced that they would no longer require the remaining 8 A380s in the order book. Virgin Atlantic also withdrew their order of 6, as they no longer wish to take up the A380. The final crunch came when Emirates announced it would reduce its order of 162 by about 20 aircraft. Once the balance of the Emirates and A.N.A. orders are fulfilled, there is no further backlog. Airbus anticipate closing production in 2021, which could impact up to 3,500 jobs. Not only will this affect Airbus, but also the many suppliers who create components for the giant aircraft.
It seems the A380 came along just a little late in the day. The focus of aviation has changed once again and it seems the day of the giant 4 engined Jumbo is over.
Back in 2006, QANTAS was one of the first airlines to place an order for the Airbus A380 Super Jumbo. 20 of the type were ordered which certainly lifted the QANTAS image as an industry leader. On 21 September 2008, the first A380, registration VH-OQA named for the much loved and respected aviatrix Nancy-Bird Walton landed in Sydney. Over the next 3 and a half years Airbus delivered 11 more airframes with the last of the 12 arriving in December 2011. VH-OQL, named Phyllis Arnott after the first woman in Australia to take a commercial pilots licence, is now officially the one that concluded the order.
For the last 8 years, QANTAS has had 8 A380s outstanding in their order book with Airbus. Sources at QANTAS indicate that those remaining 8 aircraft have not featured in its future network plans for some time. This week it was announced that the remaining 8 would no longer be required and in discussions with Airbus formally cancelled that remaining order. This is no doubt bad news for Airbus as this cancellation is a significant contributor to the $US4 billion in lost contracts. Airbus is putting a brave face on it, one source quoted as saying, “one month does not make a year”. Let’s hope they’re right.
When we look at the order book for the A380 as at the end of January 2019, we see there are 313 orders with 234 airframes delivered of which 232 are currently in active service. The QANTAS order for 20 aircraft was the third largest behind Singapore Airlines and Emirates. The Emirates order itself is what is keeping the A380 factories open. Of the 162 ordered by the giant airline, 109 have been delivered. We also note that Virgin Atlantic who had 6 on order have now dropped off the order list.
Whilst Airbus might see the Emirates order as being a lifeline for the A380. There is talk that Emirates may also be rethinking their strategy and perhaps looking at the A350 as a viable alternative. As we wrote back in 2015 about the 747-8, is the day of the 4 engined Jumbo sized aircraft at an end? We can only speculate, and of course, Airbus is remaining tight-lipped, about whether we will soon see a closure of the Airbus A380 production line?
QANTAS say they are committed to the A380s in their fleet and around mid-year this year, they will embark on a revamping and upgrade of the interiors of their A380 fleet. So there certainly is committment to the type in the future.
Described as the last frontier of aviation by CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, is the non-stop flight to anywhere in the world. The advent of the giant twin-engined airliners is bringing this dream into reality. QANTAS recently took delivery of its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners which have been deployed on the Perth to London non-stop flight route. This will become available for East Coast Australian cities soon as well. Mr Joyce indicated that the aircraft are stripped back and are targeted at the higher end business market. Cargo may even be sacrificed in favour of sleeping berths for the extremely long flights.
Perhaps we are at that tipping point where those longer flights are becoming economically feasible. If we go back a few years, the Airbus A340 was given as a solution to those ultra long flights that other airliners could not compete with. Singapore Airlines pioneered some of those long routes, but eventually the economics didn’t stack up. The long-range A340 became known as a flying tanker with a few passengers allowed along for the ride.
QANTAS also introduced an extremely long route from Sydney to Dallas, Texas using their Boeing 747 400ER. It was quite a stretch, and on several occasions on the Dallas to Sydney leg which is against the jet stream, the aircraft had to stop over in Noumea due to low fuel. This route is now operated by the Airbus A380.
Orignally Mr Joyce of QANTAS was adamant that the Project Sunrise aircraft would carry in excess of 300 passengers. This has been revised back now, and may well follow the lead of Singpoare Airlines on their Singapore to New York route using an Airbus 900ULR (Ultra Long Range). This non-stop flight of 18 hours is available to 67 Business Class travellers along with 94 Premium Economy Class travellers. Certainly a high end portion of the market. For high flying business travellers, this is the quickest way to get there, so may be money well spent.
Perhaps we’re not all as keen as those business travellers to shave a few hours off our trip and pay those premium prices. But there are new aircraft being developed and improved all the time. The likely candidates are the Boeing 777X and the Airbus A350 1000. We mustn’t quite forget about supersonic travel either. Concorde may not a have flown for a decade and half, but that doesn’t mean the concept is dead.
No sooner had we posted our article on the prospects of future supersonic jets gracing our skies again, and here comes an announcement from Boeing and Aerion of Reno, Nevada. The giant plane maker, Boeing, on Tuesday 05 February 2018 made a significant investment with the experts in supersonic technology, Aerion. The financials involved have not been disclosed, but suffice to say it will no doubt help out with the US$120 million development costs for the Aerion AS2. It must have been a good deal as Boeing shares touched a record high of US$407.48 after opening above US$400 for the first time ever.
The reasoning behind the investment can best be summed up in a statement by Steve Nordlund, vice president and general manager of Boeing NeXt. He said, “through this partnership that combines Aerion’s supersonic expertise with Boeing’s global industrial scale and commercial aviation experience, we have the right team to build the future of sustainable supersonic flight.”
As a side note, Aerion and Lockheed Martin were in a Technical Viability partnership from 2017 which lapsed on 01 February 2019 to develop the AS2. Neither party expressed willingness to further this partnership. It almost seems that Boeing was waiting in the wings.
So what is the AS2? What is Boeing buying into?
The Aerion AS2 is a business jet designed to cut travel times significantly. Here are some specs.
Aerion AS2 Specs.
Mach 1.4 / 1,000 mph / 1,610kph
125 square metres
3 x GE Affinity Turbo Fans
Mach 1.6, Mach 0.99 over supersonic banned areas.
Less than 4,000 ft
Take-off distance full fuel.
Basic Operating weight
Max take-off weight
The obvious question is, how will the AS2 suceed where Concorde failed? The restrictions for supersonic flight over land are still very much in place. Because of the sonic boom created by shock waves as the aircraft crosses the sound barrier, these aircraft are not permitted to over fly land for environmental and social reasons. So what has changed?
There is certainly pressure in the United States on governing bodies to relax the rules around supersonic flight over land. This may or may not be successful. However, in Europe there seems to be no appetite for relaxing these rules, and Europe of course is a huge destination for any business related travel. Relaxing of legislation, therefore, cannot be a condition that supersonic plane makers should count on.
The solution has to be in the technology. To minimise the sound shock wave as much as possible, the AS2 is designed with a very long tapered fuselage. This helps to control the length of the wave, thereby lessening the resultant boom. Aerion have developed BOOMLESS CRUISE™, which they say will enable the AS2 to cruise at speeds approaching Mach 1.2 without the sonic boom. This is dependant on temperature and wind. Once the AS2 gains certification Aerion intend to work with authorities in order to gain approval for this cruise capability.
There is a third feature in the AS2, in that it can fly just as efficiently at Mach .95 as it can at super sonic speeds. Mach .95 is still significantly faster than current passenger airliners, so with this flexibily, the AS2 certainly has the ability to suceed where Concorde failed. Whilst not as fast as Concorde, the AS2 has the capability of flying anywhere in the world without noise related restrictions. She will still have the ability to shave 3 hours off a trans Atlantic flight as compared to present day airliners, which is significant.
The AS2 will come with various cabin configuration options, from standard airliner seating to dual cabins with lounge chairs in one and a meeting table in the other.
On the outside, the AS2 is very sleek as mentioned above, with a long tapered fuselage. Aerion have done away with the delta wing of Concorde and gone for a more square wing, similar to modern fighter jets. The wing is very square with sharp angles and very thin. Originally Aerion were leaning toward two 19,000 lb thrust Pratt and Whitney engines, but changed to the present configuration of three 15,000 lb thrust GE Aviation engines. The tri-jet configuration they found offered better take-off performance.
It will be great to see supersonic travel coming back into focus. The renewed interest will no doubt lead to technological advances and enable supersonic jets to become the new normal. That, surely, will make air travel much more attractive.
Not since 24 October 2003, when the futuristic Concorde made her last flight, has supersonic air travel been available to the masses. Well, we use the term masses loosely. Concorde was an extremely expensive machine to run and those who flew her paid top dollar for the privilege. In addition to the high running cost, she was also limited to flying over water at supersonic speeds due to the sonic boom created by flying above the speed of sound. For environmental reasons, most countries banned the supersonic jets flying over their territory because of the sonic boom. This naturally limited the appeal of this aircraft due to the limitation of the routes it could be usefully flown over.
It is amazing to think that this technology was available until nearly two decades ago. High flying businessmen in London, for example, could go to New York, do their business, and be back home for dinner. Surely that demand is still there.
So what are the challenges that a Supersonic plane design has to overcome? The main ones are, cost to operate, sonic boom noise, landing/take-off noise and emissions.
We can agree that technology has certainly made vast improvements in the time since Concorde flew. Engine technology has enabled more power to be delivered by quieter engines. Composite materials have given higher strength to airframes at lower weights as well as lower manufacturing costs. One thing remains, however, the sonic boom. This limiting factor is still a roadblock.
There has been, over the last couple of years, increasing pressure in the U.S. for environmental standards around supersonic transport aircraft to be relaxed. There are three start-up companies that have already invested considerable money and resources into the development of their own version of a supersonic transport aircraft. These are: Boom Technologies with their Mach 2.2 capable airliner, Spike with their Mach 1.6 capable S-512 Quiet Supersonic Business Jet and Aerion with their Mach 1.4 capable As2 Business Jet. These are all slated to be ready for service between 2023 and 2025. Even the Russians are dipping their toe back in the supersonic pond, with the United Aviation Corp (UAC) aiming to start on their own offering in 2022. You may recall Russia had a Concorde look alike, the Tupolev TU-144. Dubbed, the Koncordski. This aircraft never met with any success, being used on domestic routes only, until it suffered a final setback, breaking up in flight over the Paris Air Show.
Meanwhile, the household name manufacturers are still hard on the case. Boeing has had various designs over the years to enable it to enter the Super Sonic Transport (SST) space. None have got much further than the drawing board. They are, however, working on a new concept that they hope will reinvent our expectations of fast flight. The hypersonic airliner will travel at Mach 5, which is about 3800 mph (6110 km/h) or five times the speed of sound. This is still around twenty to thirty years away and no doubt will depend on technology that to date has yet to be made available. Lockheed Martin also has an offering in the works. In 2018 Lockheed Martin was selected to design a Low Boom Flight Demonstrator(LBFD). Their X-59 QueSST (Quiet SST) will fly at 55,000 feet at a speed around 940 mph / 1,513 kph / 817 knots. The aim is to reduce the sonic boom from a boom to a light thump, a bit like car door closing.
In July 2018, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), under the lead authorship of Dan Rutherford produced a report called, “Environmental performance of emerging supersonic transport aircraft”. The report was drawn from studies and simulations carried out at Stanford University and was in response to mounting pressure on the Trump Administration to relax rules governing overland supersonic flight in the U.S.A..
The report looked back at Concorde and compared it with conventional airliners of the day, say the Boeing 747. It was obvious that in every aspect, the Concorde was less environmentally friendly. The supersonic plane was less fuel efficient, noisier at airfields, emitted higher levels of nitric oxide in the take-off and landing phases, higher levels of carbon dioxide in cruise, not to mention the sonic boom. They then looked at the situation today. As we’ve mentioned already, technology has moved forward in many aspects of aircraft manufacturing. Does this work for the supersonic jet manufacturer? Yes, of course new things are possible now that were not in the 1960s when Concorde was developed. However, the bar has been lifted as far as eco standards around commercial aircraft are concerned.
The report found that that the gap between conventional airliners and the new generation of supersonic planes was much the same as those in the time of Concorde. So, let’s say the U.S. relaxes its rules around supersonic jet travel. Will this be enough of a market for plane makers to make a profit out of? The U.S. relaxing their rules doesn’t mean other countries will follow. In fact some European countries have made it clear that they will not entertain the idea of supersonic flights over their territories. Even flying to those countries, with the last overland portion done at subsonic speeds may not work, as there are still airport noise and emission standards to overcome. So, needless to say, a complex issue.
For an aircraft manufacturer, the idea is to develop an aircraft for which you have calculated there is a market which will enable you to sell enough to recoup your cost, as well as making a profit. Some of the supersonic jet maker start ups are estimating that they will be producing up to 2,000 airframes. These aircraft will serve up to 500 cities by 2035. Imagine, around 5,000 supersonic flights a day. Over a 16 hour flying day, there could be a sonic boom every 15 minutes.
Needless to say, there are exciting times ahead. We would love to see the return of supersonic flight, but in a way that is sustainable to the environment. There is no doubt that solutions to the roadblocks will be found.