The double-decker A380 was loved by passengers, aviation enthusiasts and executives at Airbus. But the world’s largest commercial plane never won over the group that really mattered: airlines.
Airbus (EADSF) pulled the plug on its superjumbo program on Thursday, announcing that it would deliver the final A380s to airlines such as Emirates by 2021.
The decision by the European aviation group reflects a dramatic shift by airlines away from supersized aircraft in favor of smaller, more efficient planes that burn less fuel per passenger.
The original jumbo aircraft — the Boeing (BA) 747 — is also on its way out. Only six were delivered in 2018.
“It’s obvious that the era of the large, four-engine … commercial aircraft is coming to an end,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders told CNN Business’ Richard Quest on Thursday.
Giants in the sky
Massive planes were once the future of air travel.
Boeing has delivered more than 1,500 jumbo jets since the iconic 747 embarked on its maiden flight over Washington state 50 years ago.
The plane was an immediate hit with passengers, who sought out rides on the double-decker and reveled in the novelty of walking up and down its internal staircase.
Airlines loved the 747, too. Early customers included Pan Am and Japan Airlines, while British Airways, Cathay Pacific (CPCAY) and Korean Air now operate some of the largest remaining fleets.
Airbus (EADSF), which was formed from the merger of several European aerospace groups in 1970, focused initially on twin-engined aircraft but later sought to muscle in on the lucrative territory that its American rival had dominated for decades.
The business case made sense: Big airports were getting more crowded and airlines were fighting for gate space. With the trend expected to worsen, there would be demand for bigger aircraft that could carry more passengers.
Massive planes would also help airlines keep up with an explosion in demand for air travel, and boost fuel economy at the same time, the thinking went.
10 years too late
The A380 was developed at a cost of $25 billion, but the bet on a plane capable of carrying over 800 people was mistimed. The A380 made its first commercial flight in 2007, taking off into the teeth of the global financial crisis. Passenger traffic declined sharply as the crisis unfolded, costing the industry an estimated two years of growth.
In the years that followed, many airlines sidestepped capacity problems at major hubs by focusing on shorter flights between regional airports. The explosive growth of low-cost regional airlines such as Ryanair (RYAAY) reinforced that trend, and orders flooded in for smaller aircraft like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A320.
Rising fuel costs and the drive to reduce carbon emissions delivered a final blow to the jumbos, which need four engines to get airborne instead of the usual two.
Airbus has so far delivered only 234 A380s, less than a quarter of the 1,200 it predicted it would sell when the model was first introduced.
“We were at least 10 years, or maybe more, too late with the A380,” said Enders. “We are [now] building these very economical machines … that can do a lot of the job except carrying that many people.”
Boeing still makes its wide-body 777, a workhorse aircraft that has only two engines. Airbus will continue to make wide-body A350s and A330s.
Out of favor
Dubai’s Emirates had kept the A380 program on life support early last year by placing a big order for the aircraft.
But this week, the Gulf carrier followed other airlines like Australia’s Qantas in canceling orders. Emirates is instead buying 70 smaller passenger jets from Airbus, a mix of its newest A330 and A350 models.
“This program burdened us for many many years … and it was a heavy liability,” said Enders. “We tried hard … and it didn’t work.”
The 747 is widely expected to meet the same fate soon. The “Queen of the Skies” has already been ditched by every major American airline, and with rare exception only cargo versions of the plane are being manufactured.