Why the superjumbo turned out to be not-so super – Sky News

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Why the superjumbo turned out to be not-so super – Sky News

It is just 12 years since the A380 superjumbo entered service, hyped as the future of passenger aviation.

It was an answer to the venerable Boeing 747, a plane that was massive in both size and ambition.

The A380 wasn’t just a giant bit of engineering, but also a statement of how Airbus saw the future: long-distance commercial aviation shaped by huge jets flying 500 people at a time between giant hub airports.

The A380 was bigger than anything else in the skies.

Passengers immediately found it comfortable and surprisingly quiet.

The first-class section, where supremely well-heeled chief executives continue to pay huge prices, created great comfort for the passengers and large profit margins for the airlines.

A German Lufthansa airline Boeing 747-400 is taking off from the airport in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on June 4, 2012.
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The superjumbo was meant to be a rival to the Boeing 747, pictured here

Orders initially rolled in, led first by Singapore Airlines and then by Emirates, which decided to make the A380 the mainstay of its global ambition.

For a while, the superjumbo looked like it might deliver on its pledge to be “the future of long-distance travel”.

And then the world changed.

Airlines decided that they’d rather have smaller, more efficient planes that could turn a profit flying with fewer people on less popular routes.

The mantra that aviation revolved around giant airports changed, too, with growing demand for narrow-bodied planes.

The Qantas Dreamliner 787 is now flying direct between Perth and London, taking about 17-hours. Pic: Qantas
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Boeing’s Dreamliner can do a similar job to the A380 but at a lower cost Pic: Qantas

The A380, which isn’t just wide-bodied but also double-decked, began to look both futuristic and obsolete at the same time.

Over the past 30 years, the number of routes covered by the world’s airlines has more than doubled, and so has the total number of flights that the world takes.

But the average size of an aeroplane has actually, very slightly, declined.

In other words, that idea that we’d all like to go to hub airports and get on a giant plane hasn’t worked out.

If anything, today’s passenger is slightly more prone to get on a smaller plane, flying from a smaller airport.

And therein lay the death knell for the A380.

The jet was on its approach to Heathrow at the time of the near-miss. File pic
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The supremacy of global hub airports such as Heathrow may not be assured as thought

Despite being a quite brilliant bit of creative engineering and design, the superjumbo wasn’t efficient or popular enough to change the world.

And the death knell came thanks to rivals from Boeing.

The American company produced both the 787 Dreamliner and the 777X, both of which could do a similar job but at a lower cost.

Each flies with just two engines, whereas the A380 carries four.

Indeed, there is one other plane that stole business from the A380 – and that’s its own sister jet, the Airbus A350.

Smaller, sleeker and, yes, also more efficient.

It’s the plane that Airbus have decided to promote to those who are going cold on the superjumbo.

All this does have real-world implications.

It suggests that the supremacy of global hub airports (think Heathrow, JFK, Schipol) may not be as assured as we thought.

It says that expansion in the global network of flights is unlikely to stop.

Exterior view of the Spruce Goose, a massive sea plane designed and built (out of wood) by American industrialist, aviator, and film producer Howard Hughes, Los Angeles, California, 1947.
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The Spruce Goose was the biggest plane in history

And it also tells us that our desire for travelling in massive planes isn’t as compelling as we once thought – which may surprise those in first class, but may not amaze the majority at the back of the plane.

And it tells us one other thing – that aviation is led by pragmatism and economics.

The A380 failed because not enough companies wanted to buy one.

Concorde was retired because, despite its brilliance, it had become a vanity project.

The biggest plane in history was the Spruce Goose, which flew just once.

It’s not enough for a plane to be clever. It has to be reliable, practical and loved.

The A380 flew far, but also fell short.

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