Ten years ago this week the Airbus A380 made its first flight. Rob Edgcumbe takes a look at the way the programme has progressed in its first decade.
The arrival of new aircraft types in service is usually greeted with a lot of attention but, once they are in service, the level of attention falls rapidly. The result is that time can swiftly move by and the impression that a type is ‘new’ lingers when it is, in fact, well established. That ten years has passed since the A380 first flew is less of a surprise given that a considerable amount of time elapsed between its first flight and the type entering service in numbers. The well-reported problems with the wiring on the aircraft meant that while the flight testing progressed relatively smoothly, entry to service would be significantly delayed.
That said, the type is now operating with a variety of airlines and in substantial numbers. The presence of an A380 is still cause for comment at a number of locations but it is not the rarity it once was. Some airports are now stopping-off points for multiple A380s each and every day, from a number of operators, even if they do not have any based there. The significant number of aircraft operated by Emirates means that Dubai is packed with them, but there are plenty of destinations that Emirates serves that have got their first taste of A380 operations courtesy of the Dubai-based carrier.
The popularity of the A380 with Emirates has been the source of much discussion. It is often said that without Emirates, the A380 programme would be on shaky ground or possibly not viable at all. That does seem to avoid the issue of what other airlines would have done if Emirates hadn’t expanded so rapidly and eaten in to their market share, but even so, it is safe to say that A380 sales have not been as strong as Airbus had originally projected. The timing of the arrival of the type into service, coinciding with the collapse of the global economy, certainly didn’t help. However, the level of airline traffic has continued to grow steadily so that is clearly not the only contributory factor.
The truth regarding the type is far more complex and I suspect that plenty of people with a more substantial stake in the programme are puzzling over it at this point. Sadly, the discussion tends to be rather a binary one that is based on whether you want Airbus to succeed or want to see it fail. You can twist the story to suit your perspective either way. The “are you a Boeing or an Airbus person?” question is one that may seem a little strange to many of those with an interest in aviation, but it does cloud any sensible discussion about the aircraft. Certainly there is an expansion of long thin routes that can now be served by types like the 787 and the A350. Also, the 747 was used inefficiently for many years because it was the only type with the range even if it had more capacity than was necessary. Therefore, a straight replacement by the A380 was simply not going to happen.
There are major hubs with large passenger numbers that are slot-constrained and for which the optimal journey times are relatively fixed. These will be the areas on which the A380 is focused. Airport infrastructure constraints are gradually being resolved so the number of destinations that can be served is still expanding. As to the ridiculous comments about the ability of airports to handle the arrival of that many passengers at once, the assumption that they were previously serving a small number of people and were now struggling to cope with one large aircraft type is hard to fathom.
So, what is the future for the aircraft? Airbus is still struggling to produce the A380 at the rate that they would like to. Given the rate of orders, maybe that is not genuinely harmful, in that it spreads out their production horizon. They seem to have dealt with the majority of the teething issues experienced, such as door fatigue and cracking of some wing rib fittings. A big question lingers, however, over the secondary market for the aircraft, particularly if Emirates sticks with its current policy on aircraft life. This is an issue for all types though. While aircraft used to have a long life, it is now not uncommon to see them being broken for spares far earlier and when they are much younger.
Many recent types have already seen their first jets broken up when they became due for major checks, rather than the airline invest in them and return them to service. Perhaps there is a new dynamic at work in the airline business and the A380s will be used by a primary operator and most will then be withdrawn? Who knows at this point? Meanwhile, the largest operator of the type does not seem to be holding back from its interest in buying more so it obviously isn’t too concerned about what the future holds. It wouldn’t be a surprise though to see that in another ten years that the market has finally adapted to the A380 and that it becomes a solid section of the world’s airline fleet. The 747 really came into its own in with the arrival of the 400 series which was 20 years after the type first flew. The airline industry has a long development cycle and those who rush to snap judgements are often proved wrong.
In another ten years, we might have found out who was right and who was wrong. In the meantime, ten years and two days after it’s first flight – we say happy birthday, A380.