On its 15th birthday, the Airbus A380 is facing retirement
Never a hit with airlines and now grounded by the coronavirus pandemic, the still-young giant will disappear from the Airbus factory next year.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Big, burly and a bit bulbous, the Airbus A380 has never been the sleekest airliner in the skies. I'm not disputing that it's an engineering achievement, because it certainly is. The largest commercial aircraft ever to fly, it delivers a supremely smooth and quiet ride for passengers. On my first A380 flight, five years ago, it felt like we were hovering noiselessly as the British Airways giant descended over San Francisco Bay. It took the San Mateo Bridge flashing by my window to remind me that, yes, we were actually moving.
It's just that from the outside, the double-decker Airbus A380 looks like, well... a bus. Enormous? Yes, Powerful? Absolutely. Elegant? Not so much. One snarkier nickname for it is "the flying forehead." But even so, I respect what the superjumbo represents and I'll eagerly wish it a happy birthday. Fifteen years ago today, April 27, the A380 flew for the first time. Since then, it's been a hit with passengers, even if its commercial success hasn't been what Airbus originally hoped. There's nothing like it in the sky today, and as Airbus winds down production completely by 2021, hastened by the coronavirus pandemic, there never will be again.
It wasn't long before the A380 was a regular visitor to megahub international airports like Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Sydney and London Heathrow, all of which had to reconfigure terminals and taxiways to fit it. Though grand visions of onboard spas, gyms and shopping arcades never panned out -- airlines always realize they'll make the most money by adding more seats -- some did add lounges, showers and private first class suites with separate living areas and bedrooms. US airlines rejected the A380, but carriers in Asia, the Middle East, Australia and Europe placed orders. The A380's real savior was Emirates, which now has 118 A380s, with another eight aircraft on order. As Emirates mostly flies people to its Dubai base and then on to somewhere else, the A380 fits its business model well.
By its 10th birthday, though, the A380 was flying into turbulent skies. Airbus had gambled on a future like the reality that Emirates operates -- a "hub and spoke" model where airlines would need a big airliner to fly a lot of people to one city, and then put them on other big planes to somewhere else. But to many carriers, the A380 was far more aircraft than they needed. Also, the cost to buy (about $445 million apiece) and operate it was more than many could afford (Airbus announced a more fuel-efficient model at the 2017 Paris Air Show). Those airlines opted instead for smaller, two-engined aircraft like the Boeing 787 and 777 and Airbus' own A350, which could fly fewer passengers nonstop between cities and for less money (called a "point-point" model). Airbus initially projected 1,200 A380 deliveries over two decades, but as of March 30, it's delivered only 242 aircraft, with nine orders still left to fill.
The coronavirus pandemic has now grounded almost all A380s in service, but the end of the program came in February 2019 when Airbus announced it would stop A380 production and deliver the last aircraft by 2021. "Today's announcement is painful for us and the A380 communities worldwide," Airbus CEO Tom Enders said in a release at the time. "But, keep in mind that A380s will still roam the skies for many years to come and Airbus will of course continue to fully support the A380 operators." Around the same time, the first two A380s were scrapped for parts after flying for only a decade. Ten years is an incredibly short life for an aircraft -- it's not unusual to fly on planes more than twice that age.
When mass air travel can return, it's unclear how long the A380s will keep flying with airlines that aren't called Emirates. I hope the aircraft will be around for a few more years at least. It's a spacious way to fly, even when you're not in a premium class (though that certainly helps). And I had a ton of fun flying one in a British Airways simulator. If it does return, and flying on one yourself isn't in the cards, you have another option. Get yourself to an airport where A380s visit and wait near the end of the runway just before one's set to arrive. Watching the superjumbo thunder overhead just before touchdown, its four engines roaring as it blocks out the sun, is an incredible sight to behold. We've come a long way since that little Wright Flyer.