So what do you get one of the world’s biggest aircraft for its 10th birthday?
How about a future?
A decade after it first took to the skies with the promise of revolutionizing commercial aviation, the Airbus A380 has so far failed to deliver.
Sales, though initially strong, have tailed off in recent years.
And despite denials from the European manufacturer’s top brass, speculation continues to mount about whether it can continue to produce this giant of the skies.
There have also been moves to make existing A380s more commercially viable, squeezing extra seats into a cabin that once set new standards of spaciousness.
Even before the A380 first lifted off the runway as 50,000 people looked on at France’s Toulouse-Blagnac Airport on April 27, 2005, there were questions about the A380’s viability.
Airbus had sunk $13 billion and 11 years of work – blowing its original deadline and budget – in the hope that orders would flood in.
New breed of superjumbo
The gamble was that airlines would need larger aircraft to fly passengers between expanding major air hubs.
Back in 2005, that seemed like a realistic prospect.
Many major airports were already upgrading their facilities to accommodate the new breed of superjumbo.
Airbus already had 154 firm A380 orders in the bag, while rival Boeing was working on a larger version of its own aeronautical behemoth, the 747.
Plus the double-decker was an instant hit with the flying public, particularly those in premium seats who loved the spacious accommodation and its impressive range of 15,200 kilometers.
Singapore Airlines was the first to take delivery of an A380 in 2007. Other premium brands, including Emirate, Qantas, Air France and Lufthansa, soon followed.
The A380’s debut journeys were greeted with excitement around the world, attracting crowds to marvel at its vast dimensions – a 79.8-meter wingspan and 73-meter-long fuselage.
Amid A380 fever, some airlines made outlandish promises of kitting out their new superjumbos with casinos and gyms, although none did.
John Strickland, director of aviation analytics firm JLS Consulting, says the consumer reaction and economies of scale enjoyed by airlines operating the A380 do tell a success story.
“It’s delivering in its promise in terms of economics, and passengers like it,” he tells CNN.
“Customers are prepared to pay and prepared to pay a premium. Some airlines such as BA report they’re being asked if it’s an A380 when taking bookings.”
That excitement hasn’t translated into solid returns for Airbus, however.
While the initial flurry of orders has since doubled, the pace of sales has notably slackened, with the cumulative total now at 317, of which 156 are in service.
So far this year, Airbus has sold a grand total of zero A380s.
This is against a backdrop of continued expansion in the aviation market – the International Air Transport Association forecast passenger demand to rise 31% between 2013 and 2017.
Meanwhile Airbus – and Boeing for that matter – has seen no shortage of demand for its other, smaller and more economical aircraft, such as the A320, A330 and new A350 XWB.
So, it’s no surprise that stories have circulated about cold feet at Airbus, backed by quotes that appear to cast doubt on the A380’s fate.
In late 2014, Airbus Group CEO Tom Enders sounded alarm bells when he said the manufacturer faced “a decision over the near to midterm on the future of the A380.”
Airbus’s finance chief, Harald Wilhelm, admitted that one option would be to “discontinue the product.”
However, just days later, Airbus CEO Fabrice Bregier hit back, telling journalists that the manufacturer was fully committed to the A380.
He said such speculation was “just crazy… after all the efforts we have made.”
“I can tell you the A380 will have a brighter future as the market gets bigger.”
Time for a rethink?
Moves are afoot to try to make the A380 a more profitable carrier – a recently unveiled seating reconfiguration that ups the maximum passenger manifest beyond its current maximum of 853 received a tepid response.
There’s also talk of a revamp.
Emirates has been the A380’s biggest champion, building a fleet of 59 with orders in for 81 more.
It’s pledged to significantly increase those numbers if Airbus upgrades its design to create an A380 “neo” capable of supporting a larger payload through newer, more efficient engines, and redesigned wings.
Airbus has yet to commit to any rethink, wanting other airlines to show support.
Such a move would involve more billions spent recreating an aircraft that has to fully offset the expense of its original development.
It would certainly be a nice birthday present for the A380, but would it be money well spent?
Yes, according to Strickland, who says that while Airbus predictions of demand for superjumbos may be wide of the mark, demand will certainly increase.
He says the Emirates is seeing substantial demand for A380 seats as the larger aircraft feeds smaller routes via the incredibly busy Dubai International Airport hub.
That’s a model he sees being replicated across Asia as rising numbers of middle class travelers create more demand for flights and put more pressure on major airports already facing constraints.
“While demand for the aircraft may be light at the moment, it’s going to pick up again in years ahead,” says Strickland.
So, for the A380, there may be many more birthdays to come.