The Airbus A380 is one of the most popular, impressive and controversial aircrafts in the history of aviation. It’s referred to as the superjumbo due to it being the largest passenger airplane in the world. It costs a whopping $436 million, and after over a decade of service, it’s struggling to survive. Despite it being an incredibly luxurious plane that can seat up to 800 people, its price tag is jeopardizing its affordability in a changing market. The true definition of a double-edged sword, it’s exactly what makes it so amazingly special that also keeps it from thriving.
In this article we will explore everything about the A380, from its development, manufacturing and distribution, to its internal components, commercial elements and cultural impact. What was once considered to be a potential replacement for Boeing’s Air Force One, has since become inefficient and overly expensive according to most operators. While many think it could’ve been more successful decades earlier, other say it’s ahead of its time. Stick around to the end to see how its safety record could play into its overall assessment…
The Big Reveal
On January 18, 2005 in Toulouse, France the first A380 was revealed to the world. Registered as F-WWOW, it certainly had the wow factor. It was the first of five that were built in the development process. Almost two decades before, in 1988, Jean Roeder and a team of engineers began quietly working on a secret project they referred to as a UHCA, or ultra-high-capacity airliner. They wanted to compete with Boeing, who had dominated the market since the early ’70s. The project was eventually announced in 1990 and by then there were four teams working on the designs.
While multiple companies were interested and came in and out of the project throughout its development, Airbus followed through. From the mid-nineties forward the A3XX, as it was originally called, started receiving orders and actual production began. The design was finalized in 2001 and manufacturing started the year after. It was built all over Europe and assembled at the Jean-Luc Lagardère Plant in France. The cost fluctuated over the years but ended up falling somewhere between all the projected numbers. After $13 billion and over a decade of preparation, the 464 ton Airbus was ready for the sky…
Four months after the reveal, on April 27, 2005, around 30,000 people gathered to witness what would go down in history alongside the Wright Brothers first flight as an epic aviation event. Many safety precautions were taken and expectations were as high as they were hoping the plane would fly. The model had Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines (seen and discussed later in this article) and was manned by a crew of six.
The biggest concern was the weight of the aircraft, which took months of engineering time and cost a small fortune to combat prior to the flight. But as it sailed over the Pyrenees mountains, all the worries flew away. It landed after four hours, following multiple checkups and tests done by the pilots in the air. They were ready for anything, wearing parachutes and hoping for the best. Thankfully, everything went according to plan and upon landing the A380 was met with applause from the spectators.
The Airbus makes a statement at the gate well before takeoff. While most people are used to seeing a single jetway from the terminal to the plane, the A380 requires two for both levels of the aircraft. It’s 79 feet tall and even has a staircase inside to go from the main to the upper deck. And its height is nothing compared to the rest of its dimensions.
The A380 is 239 feet long and even longer from wingtip to wingtip with an astonishing 262 foot wingspan. The wings are sized for a MTOW, or maximum takeoff weight. The engineers had to factor in airport restrictions (which forced them to shave over 30 feet off the initial size), fuel efficiency and operating costs.
The Need For Speed
Above is a very cool image that captured the A380’s wingtip vortex. The top speed for the Airbus is reported as being somewhere between 634 mph and 736 mph, which is almost Mach 1. This varies due to the differences between the design speed, the operating speed and the cruising speed. Either way, this giant plane isn’t held back by its size.
Signed Sealed Delivered
After multiple delays due to complicated wiring, among other issues, a variety of airlines eventually wanted their very own A380. Many customers placed orders and around two years after the maiden flight and multiple testing runs, actual commercial aircrafts were being made and delivered. Over the next several years the Airbus would be operating all over the world…
The first production A380 was delivered to Singapore Airlines on 10/25/2007. After their initial order, they requested nine additional aircrafts with six new options. The delivery positions were protected by the options that added to their original order for ten planes in 2001. The delivery was on time and more airlines followed suit…
The Dubai based Emirates Airlines requested an additional four planes after their initial order for 43 placed in 2007. They began receiving them, also on time, on 8/1/2008 and were officially holding the largest number of the aircraft with 47. They are still one of the airlines that is very commonly associated with the A380, but they’re not the only one…
Next was Australia’s Qantas Airways, who added to their initial order of 12 with an additional eight in 2006. The formal signing took place at a ceremony in Sydney in December of that year, attended by multiple high ranking individuals from Qantas and Airbus executives. They were one of the first to commit to buying the planes in 2000, but they weren’t the last…
Following their order for 10 A380s, Air France added two more for an expected delivery date of sometime in November of 2009. They were the first European carrier to operate the A380, and led the charge for other airlines across the continent. On 11/20/2009 the airline began sending the Airbus all over the world, from Asia to North America and everywhere in between.
Lufthansa is the biggest German airline, so it’s fitting that on 6/6/2010 they began receiving their orders for its biggest aircraft. They send the Airbus all over the globe. At one point they had a seven hour A380 flight that had to turn around, on its way to Houston from Frankfurt, and go right back to where it started. But if you’re going to get stuck on a pointless flight, you couldn’t be on a better plane.
In 2003 Korean Air ordered five A380s and an additional three in 2008. They were expecting to start flying them in 2010, but their first order was received on 6/17/2011. They began on their high density traffic routes from Seoul to the west coast of the Unites States, and then expanded to the US east coast and throughout Europe. Several other Asian airlines would follow their lead…
China Southern Airlines
At another of multiple ceremonies held at the Airbus center in Toulouse, France, the first of five aircraft ordered were given to China Southern Airlines. This made it the first to own the aircraft in China and the seventh in the world. They started on 10/17/2011 with some domestic routes but eventually expanded to international destinations.
The eighth company to acquire their A380s was Malaysia Airlines. They received six planes in May of 2012, during another ceremony in France, and started flying them on 7/1/2012. They are able to fly them non stop from Kuala Lumpur to any destination in Europe or one stop service to major destinations in the United States.
In September of 2012 THAI received its first delivery of six A380s. They were handed over to Captain Montree Jumrieng again in France. Commercial service started on 10/6/2012 from Bangkok to Hong Kong and Singapore. As they received their full order they expanded to Frankfurt, Tokyo and Paris by 2013.
British Airways slogan is “To Fly. To Serve.” And their acquisition of the first of a dozen A380s in July of 2013 would help them do just that. They began flying on 8/2/2013 from London Heathrow to Los Angeles and Hong Kong. By the time BA received their planes, 40 million passengers had already enjoyed flying on A380s and that was just the beginning…
In May of the following year, Asian Airlines became the eleventh operator of the A380. In one of the more elaborate French ceremonies, there were speakers, dancers and musicians. They ordered six and began deploying them from Seoul on regional services in Asia to Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok, followed by long haul routes to Los Angeles.
Doha’s Qatar Airways, not to be confused with the aforementioned Qantas, began receiving their A380s around the same time as the previous entry. They ordered 10, but eventually only received nine starting in September of 2014, and began flying them on 10/10/2014. There was some controversy surrounding delays of the delivery, but everything worked out.
This time the ceremony wasn’t in France, but instead took place in Abu Dhabi, where Etihad Airways is located. It’s the thirteenth and final company to acquire the A380, marking the 150th delivered by Airbus. They eventually received a solid ten planes and debuted on one of their most popular routes to London. But there were other airlines that ordered the A380 that never received them…
Missed the Boat
Above is an image of parts of an A380 traveling on a barge at some point between its development and manufacturing. Also during this time, some other airlines than the ones discussed ordered the aircraft. But due to various reasons, from money and time to internal changes and delays, Air Accord, All Nippon Airways, Amedeo and Virgin Atlantic never got their A380s.
Before we get to the impressive details of the finished interior, it’s necessary to learn how this amazing aircraft is built. As with all of the delivery ceremonies, they’re primarily manufactured in France. While parts come from all over the world, the four primary contributors are Rolls Royce, Safran, United Technologies and General Electric. After many complicated shipping routes, the build commences…
The majority of the fuselage is made of aluminum alloys and composite materials. It’s the first commercial airliner whose central wing box is made of carbon fibre reinforced plastic. Other materials used include thermoplastics, a hybrid fibre metal material called GLARE (glass laminate aluminum reinforced epoxy) and newer weldable alloys. As impressive and high tech as the outside is, we haven’t even gotten to the engines…
This is a picture of a fully built engine on an Airbus A380. They typically use the Rolls Royce Trent 900, seen fully in the next entry, or the Engine Alliance GP7000. These engines allow the planes to be big enough to carry a large number of passengers while also having half the noise footprint. They’ve even received an award from the Noise Abatement Society.
As promised, behold the Rolls Royce Trent 900. In October of 2000, this engine was incorporated into the initial development plans for the A380. It made its maiden flight in May of 2004 on a different Airbus testbed, and its final certificate was granted by the European Aviation Safety Agency in 2004 and the Federal Aviation Administration in 2006.
Here is an equally impressive Engine Alliance model. It was originally intended to power a Boeing, the Airbus A380’s main competition. This engine now powers over half of the A380s. It began ground testing in April of 2004, flight tested in December over California and was certified in 2006, the same year it was tested with Airbus in France.
This is what part of the interior looked like during the testing phase. The image is of a naked cabin with water tanks for weight. In December of 2005 it did a shallow dive test and achieved its maximum design speed. Then in January of 2006 it took its first high altitude test and eventually underwent transatlantic testing and cold weather testing. Read ahead to see some of the engineers’ view of those tests…
The Engineer Station
Above is a picture of the lower deck’s engineer station on the previously described F-WWOW A380. The engineers who sat at this station were responsible for planning the specific flight test phase, overseeing the buildup of the proper configurations and working with the other engineers to ensure a successful flight. But there is arguably an even more important set of seats coming up…
The Flight Deck
The A380 has a similar avionics system as some advanced military aircrafts. The revolutionary technology developed for the Airbus helped to solve some its wiring issues, which caused several developmental delays. They didn’t change much of the actual design of the paperless cockpit in order to reduce training costs for its pilots. Now that we’ve seen the technical side of the A380, let’s take a look at the commercial elements…
The cost of the cheapest seat on the plane certainly exemplifies how expensive the A380 is overall. An economy seat can cost up to $1,000, that’s around what some first class seats go for on more traditional airplanes. But that’s not to say the seat isn’t worth it. There are ten comfortable seats per row in the economy class, and each is equipped with big screens and other amenities. And there is always the option to upgrade…
The A380 business class rivals the first class setup of most airplanes, and this is reflected in the cost. Some of these seats can be as expensive as thousands of dollars, even up to $10,000 in some cases. With luxurious seats, open areas to stretch and mingle, and even a working bar, the business option is worth the money. And if you think that’s impressive, wait until you see the premium first class options…
The first class area looks almost like a rich person’s home theater. And the next picture solidifies this comparison. But first, it’s necessary to acknowledge the gourmet meals, available at any point during the flight, and exclusive amenity kits for every passenger. And the A380 luxury doesn’t stop there. There are beautiful bathrooms and even a spa. Every part of the first class experience is designed with high quality elements and features…
The Best Seat in the House
Here is a view from one of the seats on the A380. Every detail is carefully constructed to create an atmosphere of quality and relaxation to make the flight as comfortable and enjoyable as possible. But it’s not cheap, with some costing up to, and even over, $20,000. They have not only outdone most high class options on other airplanes, but also offer elements, mentioned and referenced before, that once seen seem almost too good to be true…
Self Serve Bar
This is one of the bars offered to the premium customers of the A380. While the passengers are sometimes served drinks by a staff member, the bars are also self serve, so if no one is behind the bar, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a drink. Airlines are very proud to offer an environment where people can meet each other and move around, but for those who require a bit more privacy, the A380 has just what they need…
The A380 has many things that most planes don’t, from a staircase and spa (image still to come) to individual suites and privacy doors, seen above. If someone really wants to splurge for the ultimate in comfort and luxury, they can reserve a room to relax and disappear into their own little world. If this looks like something you might enjoy on a long distance flight, step inside to really get a feel for the place…
A Bed on a Plane
Once inside, passengers can close the floor to ceiling doors and enjoy personal lighting and temperature controls. They can sleep, eat and be entertained whenever and however they want. The big HD screen and adjustable seats add to the luxury and if you look closely enough you can spot the foldout beds. And next, we finally see the spa…
A Spa on a Plane
Being up 40,000 feet in the air doesn’t mean first class passengers can’t enjoy a refreshing shower. And these individuals won’t be crammed into the bathroom like most frequent flyers. The A380’S spa has plenty of room and amenities to enhance the experience. It is due to all of these things that the future of the Airbus is uncertain. But despite its issues, it’s still worked its way into the culture…
Dubai Miracle Garden
Emirates, the owner of the most A380s, built the world’s largest floral installation in the shape of the plane, seen above. In late 2016 the model was covered in 500,000 fresh flowers and living plants, and when in full bloom there will be up to 5 million flowers. The garden works to promote sustainable horticulture and landscaping practices. If you think this is great, it’s also been made into a lego set…
The Lego A380
Above is the lego version of the Airbus. It features amazing detail with decals, removable landing gear, a display stand, and is built out of 365 bricks. As cool as this is, it doesn’t stop the potential demise of the A380. Of all of the extravagant details discussed in this article, most of which contributed to not only its appeal but also its gamble, read the final entry to see how much the safety record adds to the threat…
But is it Safe?
Yes it is. Since it started flying over a decade ago, the Airbus A380 has had no accidents or fatalities. There have been a couple instances of engine failure related to oil leaks, but no serious damage was done and both were safely diverted and addressed immediately. This is good considering the issues it’s having, where if it wasn’t as safe it could’ve already been universally rejected. All things considered, only time will tell if this aircraft will soar.