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Why did the A380 fail? Airbus salesman John Leahy spills the beans

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2020 saw many airlines including Virgin Atlantic and British Airways retire their Boeing 747 fleets, but the other jumbo jet isn’t far behind.

Despite its recent introduction in 2007, many airlines are already starting to shelve the double-decker A380.

In February 2019, Airbus announced it would be ceasing production of the behemoth in 2021, ending a remarkably short stint for the airliner.

Why did the A380 fail?

So what went wrong? When Airbus launched the A380 program in 2000 it was hoping to take on the dominance of Boeing’s 747, which had been a staple long-haul aircraft since the early 1970s.

Instead, as retired Airbus salesman John Leahy explains in this AirlineRatings article, Airbus delivered an over-engineered, over-budget, over-weight and delayed aircraft at the worst possible moment – the height of the financial crisis.

Was the end of the A380 due to point-to-point growth?

One reason commonly given for the A380’s failure is the move away from the ‘hub and spoke’ model of flying to direct, point-to-point flights.

Historically, connecting travel was used to feed long haul routes. Only the largest commercial aircraft, such as the 747, had the fuel capacity to make trips across entire oceans or continents.

This required a critical mass of passengers to fill up the seats, which was achieved by connecting passengers from short haul destinations. You would fly from your local airport to a big hub such as Heathrow and then on towards your final destination, or vice versa.

But – given a choice – virtually everyone prefers a direct flight rather than an airport layover.

In the last 20 years, enormous strides have been made by Airbus and Boeing to offer smaller aircraft that can go the distance.

Starting with Boeing’s 767 in the 80s and continuing with the introduction of the A330, 787 and A321XLR, medium (and small) sized aircraft can now fly the majority of long haul routes at similar cost. Aer Lingus and JetBlue will both soon be flying single-aisle A321XLR planes across the Atlantic, for example.

That doesn’t mean that the hub and spoke model is dead, however. Point to point flights are great in theory but even with a smaller aircraft most airlines will still struggle to fill thin routes. Passengers may prefer direct flights, but they also like (and need) frequency, and frequency needs passenger volume which needs the hub and spoke model.

It is no surprise that Emirates was the largest customer of the A380. Dubai became a natural hub as global economic activity started to shift away from the west towards the east, necessitating substantial travel between the two.

The move to point to point was not the problem. John Leahy blames three other factors.

Why did the A380 fail?

Three reasons why the A380 failed

Inefficient engines

Engine efficiency is possibly the single largest make-or-break component when launching a new aircraft. Both Airbus and Boeing often delay their plans until significant gains in engine efficiency can be achieved.

Leahy says Airbus was “blindsided” by the engine manufacturers:

“[Engine manufacturers] were assuring us that the specific fuel consumption was that of new generation engines, and it would be ten years before there was the next leap to a substantial improvement. We launched in 2000, but three years later we got the 787 being launched with GENx engines and Rolls Royce matching that, having a ten to 12 percent better specific fuel consumption than the A380’s engines.”

12% fuel efficiency represents a massive saving for aviation, where even a 0.5% gain can make a difference to commercial viability.

Leahy implies that a breakdown in communication meant Airbus jumped the gun instead of patiently biding its time for further improvements in fuel efficiency. “We should have had better intelligence with the engine guys.”

An A380 with 787 generation engines would have been exceptionally efficient. Such an aircraft could have competed with its smaller rivals even when not fully full:

“Had we had that better fuel burn, on a 65 or 70 percent load factor you could have done very well with the A380.”

The biggest difficulty with the A380 is actually filling it up. It is no good having amazing fuel efficiency on a per-seat basis when you can only fill 50% of them.

Leahy suggests that this wouldn’t have been a problem with better engines – the A380 could have flown two thirds full and still competed with the 787 on a cost-per-seat basis.

Why did the A380 fail?

The A380 was overweight

Another issue impacting the efficiency of the A380 was the weight of the aircraft.

Like most aircraft families, the A380 was expected to offer a variety of sizes, starting with a smaller A380-800. A larger A380-900 was planned to follow, with potential for even greater expansion.

When Airbus came to designing the aircraft, it decided to future-proof the specification for the upcoming larger A380-900. This meant that the -800 was built with heavier components than was necessary.

Unfortunately, the -900 never materialised. Airbus was left with an aircraft that was much heavier than it needed to be, impacting its fuel efficiency.

In the end, Airbus “designed an airplane that was going to be too heavy in the -800, so that the -900 could be the optimum” – to its detriment.

Why did the A380 fail?

The Airbus corporate structure created problems

When Airbus launched the A380 program in 2000 it expected to deliver the first aircraft in 2005.

That never happened thanks to corporate issues at Airbus, with engineers, designers and manufacturers spread out across Europe to appease national Governments.

One big problem was that it had built wire harnesses that were just a few centimetres too short:

“How could the Germans be sitting there in their own little world in Hamburg, the French in their walled city in Toulouse, and they clearly weren’t talking to each other? How could you have gone right to the end of your design phase, you have already manufactured these wiring harnesses, you’ve built the airplane, and now for the first time you are trying to connect them, and the workmen say: Hey, they don’t fit, guys? How could that happen? It was just dysfunctional.”

In the end, A380 production problems led Airbus to re-organise itself, a process which successfully delivered the A350.

It was too late for the A380 program. Design issues meant the A380 wasn’t introduced until 2007, 2-3 years behind schedule:

“You were building up a fleet right during a financial crisis, when business travel was way down, hurting the airlines financially. When financing was difficult, the brand new largest aircraft in the world made financing even more difficult.”

Why did the A380 fail?

Is the A380 the end for all large aircraft?

Covid-19 has put the last nail in the coffin for many large aircraft as airlines all around the world retire their fleets of Boeing 747s and A380s. But is that the end for large aircraft?

The answer is probably not. If air travel continues on the same trajectory it was on pre-Covid there will be a niche for very large aircraft:

“Because you still got London-Heathrow, you still got Los Angeles, you’ve got around 50 airports all over the world that, if traffic continues to grow at 3-4% a year or even faster, you are going to end up with congested hubs, and even going hub-to-hub is a point-to-point trip. If you can make that 400- to 500-seat airplane 15% more efficient than the 300-seat airplanes, you are giving people a really good reason to go hub and spoke. The problem with the 747 and the A380 is that there is no real economic reason now.”

You can read more from the original interview here.

Comments (41)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Froggitt says:

    “An A380 with 787 generation engines would have been exceptionally efficient”

    I’m pretty sure an A380neo wasn’t beyond the wit of man.

    • Will says:

      Emirates wanted it but there wasn’t enough demand to put it through development and approval airbus say.

      I tend to agree with you in this, it doesn’t sound expensive given the engine would likely be a A350/787 derivative.

      • Rui N. says:

        I think Airbus at the time mentioned it would be a $2 billion investment to re-engine the A380. You can’t just put the new engines and be done with it.

    • Rhys says:

      You’d still have been left with the weight penalty of the overbuilt structure.

      • Will says:

        In a galaxy far away perhaps a -900 NEO made it to market and became the plane it was always destined to be 🙂

      • Michael Jennings says:

        Also, four engined aircraft are inherently less efficient than two engined aircraft. A lot of retired 747s have been replaced with 777s, which are only a little bit smaller but which are more efficient partly due to being a newer design and partly due to being a twin rather than a quad-jet. Once upon a time quad-jets were used for overwater routes, but in this age of ETOPS, you can fly a twin on almost any route.

        Airbus tested this once, by building otherwise almost exactly the same aircraft as both a twin and a quad (the A330/A340). The four engined A340 sold badly and was discontinued, but the twin engined A330 sold well, was upgraded to a re-engined A330neo, and will be with us for quite a while yet.

  • AJA says:

    Are the engines inefficient or is it rather that because Airbus over engineered the A380 and made it so heavy it needed 4 big rather than 2 very big engines? I thought the engines on the A380 were far more efficient than those on the 747, it is certainly a quieter engine. The reality is the load factors were never great which is a killer for the airlines and it has poor cargo capacity too.

    • Rhys says:

      It’s both. Compared to the 747-400 the engines are more efficient, the 747-8 has 787 gen engines.

      • AJA says:

        But the 747-8 is also not popular and production is ending / stopped already. The reality is that twin engined aircraft have subsequently been developed that can carry a mix of freight and passengers depending on load factors much more efficiently and as far as the A380 or 747. That’s really been the killer for both jumbos.

  • Jonathan says:

    Why did they not adapt – once they realised the -900 wasn’t going to materialise make the next batch of -800 components more lightweight. Same with the engines, once newer more efficient engines came out can they not be adapted to work with older aircraft?

    • Alex W says:

      According to Airbus exec on Wikipedia there was “no business case for it”. I guess they just could not get enough orders for it, even with newer engines.

    • Will says:

      I think approval is a big issue, everything you change in an aircraft must be thoroughly tested.

    • Rhys says:

      It would be massively expensive. You would effectively be re-engineering and testing the whole structure. It would be like introducing a whole new aircraft rather than adapting an existing one.

  • Peter K says:

    The whole sections on parts being the wrong size reminds me of talking to someone who worked at the Bentley factory in Cheshire. He was complaining that all the panels etc sent from Germany never fitted so they had to engineer at the UK factory to compensate.

    • Alex Sm says:

      This sounds a bit odd. I would have imagined an opposite situation!

      • Peter K says:

        I was also surprised but I had no reason to disbelieve him as there was no commercial/occupational gain to him from telling me the information.
        Sometimes you find out more from the floor than from the bosses if you are personable and friendly.

  • Mikeact says:

    Seems to me to be a typical EU problem as well….left hand, right hand, we want this, we want that.

  • Mike White says:

    Firstly, whilst the article appears to have the premise that Hub and Spoke was not the A380’s weakness, all the contributing factors John Leahy mentions contributed to it being precisely that; his ego just doesnt allow him to summarize it like this. At the time Boeing went the opposite direction and he doubled down on A380 hub/spoke.
    Secondly, weight reduction is part of the through-life program for any aircraft. Manufacturers should never stop trying to reduce weight/improve efficiency on an aircraft. If they did then they were fools.
    The problem was also not the engine – as someone else said, a neo could have worked out – the problem(s) were the delay in going to market and the lack of market size compared to their vision. There was never going to be a huge market for the aircraft….400-aircraft, maybe 500 tops.
    Put simply. The over-arching problem is one of Airbus’ organization and funding structure that breeds under-accountable leadership, compromise on too many key items and a lack of fear-of-failure through a largely guaranteed minimum market.

    Put even more simply, they could all afford to take the risk. I’m glad they did. They did the same with A400M and they’ll probably do it again.

    • Alex W says:

      When talking about weight reduction we are not talking about changing the galley or taking a toilet out.
      The ‘over-engineered’ parts in question are structural components, there is no through life weight reduction program for those. Airbus ‘future proofed’ them to take the higher load of an extended aircraft with more seats, clearly you are correct in that this future never materialised.

      The structural components are set at the design stage and tested for thousands of hours using a ground fatigue test rig before structural clearance is given. The test rig is always thousands of hours ahead of the fleet leader. If any cracks are detected in the test rig the components can be repaired or replaced on the fleet before any cracks in the fleet reach critical length.

      It seems unlikely that one would try to introduce lighter weight structural components part-way through the life of the aircraft. You would have to start that part on the fatigue test rig from zero hours which would be hugely expensive.

  • WaynedP says:

    Great article, thanks, Rhys, very interesting insights indeed.

    I always suspected there might be more than the direct destination argument to the A380s problems.

    Glad to think that lessons have been learnt for the A350 design, and other future models.

    Important to encourage efficient, competitive aircraft manufacturers, especially once China starts up its own commercial aircraft manufacturing industry in the next couple of decades.

  • Gregg says:

    I ‘tried’ several times to fly the 380 from Washington to Paris. [It is now a few years ago but I think that was the route.] To my logical brain I imagined that the airfare would be cheaper than smaller jets but on every occasion the airfare was more expensive than the other regular jets flying the route which to me was absurd. Like paying more per item for buying groceries in bulk than just 1 single item. Therefore there was absolutely no point flying it.

    • Callum says:

      Airline ticket prices are based on what the market will pay – it has very little to do with the running costs of the particular plane you’re on. I’m not sure if the systems deciding the fare prices even care about the plane running costs at all? I don’t see how it would be relevant.

      If the A380 ticket was always more expensive then I’d imagine that particular time was the most popular, probably why they’d be using their highest capacity plane.

    • HAM76 says:

      It‘s like taking the tube during peak times. The more miserable you are on a ride, the more you pay TfL.

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