I’m sure the recent announcement by Airbus to curtail its production of the Airbus A380 Super Jumbo met with disappointment by many. It doesn’t seem long ago that we were all excited by this brand-new groundbreaking aircraft. It promised to be the new Boeing 747 to take us into the 21st Century. I remember, only a few short years ago, being able to boast that I had actually flown on one and sharing that experience with those who hadn’t.
It seems too soon to be thinking about this aircraft ceasing production in only a couple of years from now.
That got to me thinking about how other airliners have fared in the past. Don’t they usually get produced for longer periods than that of the A380? Like any marketable product, an airliner has to fit a niche in that market. There has to be a demand for that product. In the case of an airliner, it has to be able to generate an income for its owner so that it can make a profit. Much like a car manufacturer, they have to produce a product that is appealing to the potential customer and operates within parameters that the customer expects. These parameters include environmental concerns, but, more particularly economical concerns. In these days of higher operating costs, it must be shown that the product has addressed these higher costs with technological solutions.
In the case of the A380, it seems technology was part of its undoing. Don’t get me wrong, the A380 used state-of-the-art technology in its design and materials, and is a great example of where aviation technology has evolved to. It is more about other aviation technology that has also evolved into a very high standard of reliability. The jet engine.
Jet engine technology is now of such a high standard that restrictions that were previously applied to aircraft with two engines flying long distances over water have been lifted. Each new engine that is brought to market has to go through a certification process along with the aircraft they happen to be attached to. This is a standard called ETOPS which stands for “Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards”, or if you prefer, “Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim”.
So what has this to do with our poor, not-so-old, A380? It benefits from the same engines, right? Absolutely it does, it can be sure that all its four engines will keep spinning happily throughout every flight. However, waiting in the wings are the big twin-engine jets, like the Boeing 777, Boeing 787, Airbus A350, Airbus A330, to name a few. They can now fly the same routes the A380, and some of them even further. The larger of these can carry about two-thirds of the capacity of the A380, so they’re not that much smaller either.
So why do airliners want larger twins instead of the glamourous Super Jumbo? Economics and logistics. The economics part is fairly straightforward. The A380 is expensive to run. Four hungry engines to feed and of course all the additional spares you have to keep on hand to ensure the aircraft doesn’t miss a beat if something needs replacing. If the engines aren’t turning you’re not earning. To make the aircraft turn a profit, it has to fly almost full all the time, which is a hard thing to achieve with over five hundred seats to fill for every flight.
The logistics side relates to where it can fly. When the A380 was about to be introduced, main airports around the world had to make major improvements to runway strength and terminal gates so as to be able to accommodate the new aircraft. Whilst this development has been done, it means that there are many airports around the world where the A380 cannot land. Airbus worked on the hub and spoke theory. They envisaged the A380 carrying large volumes of passengers between main centres from where those passengers would then connect to regional centres using local commuter airliners. The reality now, however, is that the aforementioned twin jets are capable of flying the long-haul routes once dominated by the four-engined jets, and are capable of landing at many more airports. The trend, therefore, is to be able to fly non-stop from almost anywhere to almost anywhere else.
The story is similar for the Airbus A340. Its four-engined configuration was designed for those long-haul overwater flights. It enjoyed a measure of success, particularly with Asian airlines, but was also overtaken by the twin-engined jet eventually.
If we go back and look at the early jet airliners like the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC8, we can see they dominated the skies for quite some time. During a time when fuel was cheap and restrictions around noise and pollution hadn’t really found their teeth yet, they were the intercontinental airliners of the day. As soon as the oil crisis of the early 1970s happened, they were no longer viable.
Airliner manufacturing companies spend billions on research and development for each airliner type we see. They evaluate the selling ability as they need to know they can recoup the money they have spent, as well as of course make a profit. In the case of the A380, it is obvious that this hasn’t happened. Airbus anticipated selling 1,200 of the type and has not even made a quarter of that number. This hurts the bottom line and will ultimately cost jobs.
The life of the airliner type is very dependent on the manufacturing companies keeping up with the latest technology and market trends and to a large extent, predicting the future.