It’s official: Airbus will pull the plug on its A380 double-decker jet.
The move was announced Thursday, and comes after much speculation about the future of Airbus’ “superjumbo” jet amid tepid sales.
The latest A380 is now expected to roll off the assembly line in 2021. With that, there will be no new A380s beyond then, though it’s possible many of the A380s now flying will continue to do so for a decade or more.
The A380 is the world’s largest commercial passenger jet, capable of sitting 600 passengers or more. It marked a bold and ambitious project for Airbus, which bet airlines would want a giant plane that could fly more passengers into busy airports with no capacity for new flights.
Around the same time, Boeing made a contrary bet. Instead of a double-decked behemoth, the U.S. jetmaker figured its airline customers would be better served by a smaller widebody jet with low operating costs that could instead make frequent flights between cities. Or open up international routes between medium-sized markets too small to serve with larger widebody jets.
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Boeing’s Dreamliner, made partially from composite materials, began flying for airlines in 2011. Boeing has now received more than 1,400 orders for the jet, which remains a strong seller for the company. And, as Boeing predicted, it opened up new overseas routes from cities like Austin and New Orleans. Even Charleston, South Carolina, will soon have a new nonstop flight to London that will be operated by British Airways on Boeing Dreamliners.
Airbus’ later A350, a smaller widebody model also made partially from composite materials, followed Boeing’s 787, flying its first passenger flight in 2015. That line also has sold well for Airbus.
But the A380 never found a profitable niche.
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The A380 seats more than 500 passengers in a standard seat configuration, though some airlines have versions that seat more than 600. The A380 could seat as many as 850 passengers in an all-economy class layout, though no airline has yet to do so.
While the A380 can carry more passengers than any other commercial passenger plane, the four-engine aircraft also is more expensive to operate compared to modern two-engine jets. For example, Boeing’s two-engine 777 models are cheaper to operate and can seat nearly 400 passengers.
The A380 also required some airports to modify taxiways and airport terminals to be able to accommodate the giant jet.
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Even Boeing’s iconic humped 747, its closest in capacity to the A380, has seen sales decline as passenger airlines increasingly prefer two-engine models that are less costly to operate.
“The very clear trend in the market is to operate long-haul aircraft with two engines [such as] Boeing’s 787 and 777, and Airbus’s A330 and A350,” Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor of Flight Global, says to the BBC.
The A380 began flying for airlines just in 2007, when Singapore Airlines put the jet into passenger service.
Dubai-based carrier Emirates was an enthusiastic supporter of the jet, ordering nearly half of all the roughly 270 A380s Airbus is expected to have made before the line ends.
Beyond Emirates, however, the A380 never found the broad customer base Airbus envisioned.
No U.S. carriers ever gave serious consideration to ordering the jet. About a dozen other global airlines bought the jet, including Air France, British Airways, Korean Air, Lufthansa and Qantas, among others. But, aside from Emirates, the A380 was just a niche player in the fleets of most airlines to fly it.
For many of the A380’s current operators, the giant jet served as a canvas to create some of the most opulent passenger seats ever.
Singapore Airlines, already regarded as one of the world’s most luxurious carriers, used the A380 to roll out its spacious suites with private sliding doors and separate bed and siting areas. Emirates, along with United Arab Emirates rival Etihad, added showers to their versions of the jet.
Now, though, the line will soon come to an end.
Some will view the Aribus’ move as a validation for Boeing’s focus on its Dreamliner. And, for Airbus, the short-lived run of its signature A380 product will be viewed as an embarrassing miscalculation. The Associated Press notes that “a pall of mourning hung in the atmosphere Thursday at (the Airbus) headquarters in the southern French city of Toulouse — but there was also a hint of relief after years of straining to keep the A380 alive.”
“It’s a painful decision for us,” CEO Tom Enders said. “We’ve invested a lot of effort, a lot of resources, a lot of sweat … but we need to be realistic.”