Emirates Saves the A380

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There is, without question, no better airplane from a passenger perspective than the A380. Its great size offers passengers unparalleled comfort no matter which class of service they are in, with lower cabin altitude, reduced noise and responsiveness to turbulence. Those fortunate enough to fly in premium cabins will find room for lounges, bars and, in first class, closed-door suites and even showers.

The A380 has allowed for unparalleled innovation in premium products. As the launch customer for the A380, Singapore Airlines debuted its Suites Class, where connecting first class suites can connect to form one single double bed in the sky.

Singapore Air Original Suites Class

Emirates upped the ante by introducing Shower Suites in its cabins.

Then Etihad revolutionized its use of cabin layout when it introduced its First Apartments and The Residence.

Etihad A380 First Class Apartment

Most recently, Singapore revised its first and business classes for the new A380s being delivered.

Singapore Air Updated Suites Class

Even on those airlines not trying to leapfrog their way to the best in the industry, the A380 is normally the jewel of the fleet, and just makes flying more fun.

The aircraft’s problems are a result of what makes it so great, a miscalculation on Airbus’ part a decade ago. When it embarked on developing the A380, Airbus built the plane based on the assumption that airlines would need ever larger cabins to get passengers between crowded hub airports. Instead, the development of light-weight, longer-range aircraft like the 787 Dreamliner and A350 have turned that assumption on its side, opening up otherwise unprofitable routes non-stop between secondary markets. Think San Diego to Tokyo, Austin to London, Washington to Abu Dhabi.

Relative to the 787 and A350, or even the 777, the A380, with its four engines, is incredibly expensive to operate, and only makes financial sense if an airline can consistently fill its 500+ seats on a route, which is difficult at best. In today’s market, most airlines have demonstrated that they are much more comfortable operating dual-engine aircraft. In the last year, we’ve seen both United and Delta retire the last of their 747s, for example. And with the upcoming release of the 777-X, Boeing’s update to the dual engine plane, the future for the A380 seemed pretty bleak. Airbus had received no new orders for the A380 in years.

Here’s where Emirates enters the picture. While most airlines that operate the A380 have only a few (Singapore Airlines, which operates the second largest A380 fleet, has 19 aircraft; Air France, Korean Air and Etihad each have 10), Emirates has based its entire business model on utilizing a fleet of more than 100 A380 to transfer passengers to and from its hub in Dubai.

So, as A380 orders have stagnated since 2015, and many have worried about the future of the program entirely, Airbus and Emirates have been playing a game of chicken. Emirates loves the A380, and needs a continued A380 production line to support its fleet, but wanted Airbus to commit to the aircraft’s future. Airbus needs A380 orders – and lots of them – to recommit to the plane’s future. It wasn’t looking good when, last fall, Emirates announced a major order of Boeing aircraft.

But today, the A380’s future looks bright again, as Emirates announced an order of 36 new A380 aircraft, beginning in 2020. This is a large enough order for Airbus to commit to the aircraft’s future for at least another decade.

The ultimate question will be whether, over the next decade, Airbus is able to find new customers for the plane type. As airports and skies become ever-more crowded, there is a future for a plane of this size, it just seems that Airbus released it a few decades too early. And, if Airbus were to revise the plane with new engines and weight-saving technology (ala the A330neo, 737-max, etc.) the cost dynamics of the plane could make it of great interest to new customers. Emirates has been asking for this for years.

But Airbus is going to feel reluctant to invest more money into a product that has still not broken even unless it feels that there is significant interest in an A380neo – like hundreds of orders interest. The company just bought itself almost a decade to figure that out.

And, in the meantime, we can rest easy knowing that the A380 will be around for many more years to come!