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What Killed the Biggest Passenger Plane Ever Flown?

The Airbus A380. Photo: Silas Stein/picture alliance via Getty Image

The Airbus A380 is awesome and huge — the biggest passenger plane ever made, in fact. But less than 12 years after its entry into service, airlines feel they have enough of them. With orders having slowed to a trickle, Airbus has announced a wind down in production.

To understand why, look to this 2017 Business Insider interview with Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, where he explains why even newer planes have quickly rendered the A380 inappropriate for many of the uses airlines thought they might have for it.

An A380 seats 484 passengers, as configured for the Australian airline, meaning it has a bit more than twice the capacity of a Qantas Boeing 787. And Joyce told BI that Qantas can operate two 787s for a bit less than the cost of running one A380, meaning the airline’s per-passenger cost is actually lower if it splits passengers up into the smaller planes. Given the obvious flexibility of using multiple planes instead of one — you can fly them at different times, or to different destinations — why would any airline want the giant plane?

The theory behind the A380, as Airbus was conceiving it almost 20 years ago, was that airlines would continue to serve passengers through increasingly congested hub airports like London Heathrow and Los Angeles International, and that ever larger planes would be necessary to cope with the limited number of daily takeoffs and landings these airports could handle. Instead, air traffic grew more slowly than expected, and the rise of long point-to-point routes to secondary cities, increasingly operated by 787 or Airbus’s own A350, took pressure off the largest hubs.

In a way, the A380 was a victim of Airbus’s own success. Around the same time it was rolling out the superjumbo jet, Airbus was — along with Boeing — developing a midsize jet that made superjumbos less necessary. The A350, like the 787, is a wide-body jet for about 250 to 300 passengers. These planes are built in large part out of lightweight composite materials, and they have super fuel-efficient engines that allow them to travel similarly long distances as the A380 while burning less fuel per passenger. They are small enough to provide economically viable service on “long and thin” routes like Boston to Seoul and Los Angeles to Qingdao. And passengers will pay a premium for the opportunity to fly these routes nonstop.

Even on ultra-high-volume routes between the world’s busiest airports, where you would think airlines could easily fill a 500-passenger plane, consumer demand for high flight frequencies has led many carriers to continue using smaller planes. New York to London is the busiest transoceanic airline route in the world; on a given Friday, six airlines operate 31 flights from New York-Kennedy or Newark Liberty to London Heathrow or London Gatwick. Not one of those flights is operated with an A380. That’s because an airline that chose to operate, say, three daily A380 flights on the route would lose customers to its competitors, which run five or more flights a day on smaller jets, allowing customers to leave almost exactly when they want.

It’s not that the A380 has no valid uses. Not every carrier finds the cost comparison to be as stark as Qantas does. Jet fuel is heavy, and when a long-range plane takes off with enough fuel to fly almost halfway around the world, it’s burning a lot of fuel just to carry fuel. For this reason, a 12-hour flight requires much more fuel than two six-hour flights. Oliver Lamb, managing director for Ailevon Pacific, which consults with airports and airlines about route development, told me the 787’s fuel-efficiency advantage over the A380 is especially great on these ultralong routes — a style of flight toward which Qantas’s network is especially weighted.

For airlines whose long-haul flights are shorter, the A380 can make more sense, especially if the flights go in or out of congested airports where landing slots are at a premium. British Airways doesn’t fly A380s to New York, but it does use them on other routes where frequency is less essential. And not every airline is all-in on the point-to-point model. Emirates, which expects most passengers to connect in Dubai, operates about half the A380s in the world.

In that 2017 interview, Joyce even identified circumstances where the A380 is the best choice for Qantas: routes where it can’t get enough landing slots to operate as frequently as it would like, and routes where a scheduling concern (such as the need to not take off or land at 3 a.m.) limits the airline’s ability to spread traffic over widely spaced frequencies throughout the day. But the airline already has 12 A380s, and that seems to be enough. Earlier this month, Qantas formally canceled its order for eight more of the planes. Even Emirates is only going to buy so many.

In the end, Airbus expects to sell 251 A380s — one more than the manufacturer initially said it would need to make to break even on the program, though the Wall Street Journal notes that target was set before the plane became plagued with cost overruns and delays.

Coincidentally, 251 is just one more than the number of L-1011 TriStar jets that Lockheed Martin produced from the late 1960s into the 1980s. The three-engine L-1011 was part of the first wave of wide-body aircraft, launching just two years after the even larger Boeing 747. It became a fleet mainstay for some U.S. carriers, especially Delta, but was widely regarded as a commercial failure. Lockheed quit the passenger aircraft business after ending that program.

But Lamb thinks Airbus may have just been ahead of its time with the A380.

“We are not building new airports in the U.S.,” he said. “What happens to the Los Angeles and New York markets in 20 years? How do they keep flying with 3 percent annual growth, already pushing capacity limits, and no realistic way to grow runway slots and gates at 3 percent per year?”

Those capacity limits will be addressable in the near future by moving up from planes much smaller than the A380 to larger planes that are still smaller than the A380. Airlines can replace regional jets with Boeing 737s, and 767s with A350s. But in the long run, the time for the superjumbo jet may come again.

What Killed the Biggest Passenger Plane Ever Flown?