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The story behind the biggest passenger airliner Airbus A380

Anastasia Dagaeva
February 16, 2018

Last week Emirates signed a contract to buy as many as 36 Airbus A380 aircraft worth as much as $16 billion at list prices, firming up an order that is crucial to the future of the world’s biggest passenger jet, according to Reuters. The order, for 20 of the double-decker planes with an option for 16 more, was originally announced on a provisional basis in mid-January. Deliveries are to start as soon as in 2020. Airbus had previously said it would have to end production of the A380 if it failed to secure the huge Emirates deal. 

The A380 made its first flight on 27 April 2005 and entered commercial service on 25 October 2007 with Singapore Airlines (SIA), being the launch customer of the type. The aviation world had been waiting for the superjumbo appearance so long, the tickets on the first Singapore — Sydney — Singapore flight were put on eBay online auction. The highest lot — two first class tickets went for $100,380 (265 times higher than the original price). 

It was SIA’s idea to run the auction. The list of lots included tickets to all classes — economy, business and first. Passengers of the first class were given certificates, signed by the Singapore Airlines CEO, t-shirts, bags and a special edition of inflight magazine, told the airline’s representative.

The auction raised about $2 million for Singapore Airlines. Because of the nature of the event and the fact that all money raised would go to charity, this was no ordinary eBay auction. Bidders had to place a $1,000 deposit and provide proof of a valid passport.

Two years later, on 20 November 2009, the “french” A380 went to its first commercial flight — from Paris to New York. Air France, just like Singapore Airlines, decided to auction a big portion of the tickets. A total of 538 people were able to fly, including 380 aviation enthusiasts, that bidden for their tickets on the online auction. The amount of money raised were not disclosed by the carrier.

Airbus A380 is an up to 850-seat, double-deck aircraft, which is 24 meters-high (a seven-store building). The jet’s non-stop range is about 15000 km. The programm was launched in 1994, back then Airbus designated it as an A3XX. Before that, for 35 years the ‘wide-body’ skies were dominated by the Boeing 747 dubbed the “Queen of the Sky”. A380’s maiden flight took place on 27 April 2005, although its commercial service began after 2 years delay.

Production issues began to appear in the spring of 2005. The French and German production facilities began blaming each other publicly when deliveries were postponed from the fall of 2005 to the spring of 2006. Then, in the fall of 2006, the pre-assembled wiring harnesses produced in the Hamburg plant failed to fit properly into the frame when the plane was in the assembly stage in the Toulouse plant. 

Hamburg had designed the wiring harnesses using an older version of CATIA (software commonly used in the aircraft industry). The assembly plant in Toulouse, however, used the most up-to-date version of the software. Unfortunately, there were issues of compatibility between both versions and one consequence was that design specs could not flow electronically between the two plants.  

As a result, when it came to install hundreds of miles of wiring cables into the fuselage of the aircraft in Toulouse, they failed to fit.  Airbus was then left with no choice but to halt production, postpone deliveries of the aircraft for two years, and redesign the wiring system.  "It doesn't matter if it's short by 40 millimeters or 40 meters," said Tom Williams, chief of aircraft programs at Airbus, ”But after a while it becomes a cumulative problem.”

In 2000, the project cost evaluated as €9,5 billion. In 2015, Airbus has unveiled another figure — €15 billion. In 2016, according to various sources the figure has raised again up to €25 billion — the exact amount is not known, as the manufacturer doesn’t disclose a lot of sensitive information. 430 super-jumbos got to be sold, to return the investment. Currently, there’re 222 A380 already flying with different airlines with 337 more — on order, including the recent Emirates deal.

13 airlines operate the A380 around the world. Emirates leads the list as the major operator of the type with 101 airplane, followed by Singapore Airlines (17) and Lufthansa (14). Qantas and British Airways share the 4th place with 12 airplanes each. The bottom of the list are Air France, Etihad and Korean Air — 10 each.

A380s serve 120 destinations between 60 airports around all continents. More than 180 million passengers have been transported since the first commercial flight. This includes more than 300 commercial flights per day, which take off or land around the world every two minutes. Nevertheless, the French manufacturer announced that the A380 production rate to fall from 15 in 2017 to 12 in 2018, a total of eight airplanes would be assembled in 2019.

The weak demand for the giant pushed the Irish leasing company Amedeo to run its own A380-operating airline. Amedeo has eight A380s plus 20 more on order. According to Mark Lapidus, Amedeo’s CEO, the new airline’s business model will see it offer seats to existing carriers, or to potential non-traditional arrivals such as Airbnb. Passengers would buy their ticket through another company, while Amedeo would operate the flight, using its own cabin crew but tailoring the service to suit the client. 

But the real lifesaver for the programm became a long-awaited Emirates deal, having discussed over for several years. An anticipated order failed to materialize at the Dubai Airshow 2017, with Emirates instead signing a deal with Boeing for 40 of the US manufacturer’s 787 Dreamliner.  The Dubai-based carrier could not negotiate a discount it wanted. The A380 list price is $445 million, but airlines never pay that much. The more airplanes are on order the lower the price. As for the A380, the possible Emirates deal was a lifeline for the programm. The papers were signed in February 2018, meaning production would not stop.

“This new order underscores Airbus’s commitment to produce the A380 for at least another 10 years,” John Leahy, Airbus legendary salesman said. “I’m personally convinced more orders will follow Emirates’ example and that this great aircraft will be built well into the 2030s.” The future is still unknown. The industry trend pushes four-engined jets (A380 and B747) out of the market. 

Despite all the problems, the A380 is already a flying legend. Passengers love the plane for its spacious cabin, even in economy. Aviation enthusiasts would wait for its arrival in a local airport. As for the premium classes, A380 offers the very best options. There’re lounges, bars, shower cabins, spacious beds and even private apartments.

Etihad’s three-room suite, called 'The Residence', features a living room, separate bedroom, and an ensuite shower, with its layout designed for two people traveling together but could also be used to accommodate a single person. Singapore Airline’s suite is another great cabin layout with slide doors. The key feature — a separated bed and chair. Now, each suite (six in total) has a foldout bed (193 cm long) and rotating chair (53 cm-wide). Two nearby suites can be reconfigured as one space making a bed truly wide, big enough for a couple. 

On Singapore Airlines’ wide-body airplane, pre-order should be placed with the airline 24 hours prior to departure for exclusive dishes. Rivers of champagne are a must. Don’t forget, any Airbus A380 is equipped with a lounge bar, all suite-inhabitants can gather at.

The only altitude A380 has never been able to reach is to become a private jet. In 2007, the Saudi prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud has ordered VVIP A380 but later resold it back to Airbus. In 2015 Airbus has officially written off the order for what is now called the ACJ380. 

According to the announcement made in May 2017, the first SIA’s A380 is planned to get transformed into a business jet. Sparfell & Partners Company said that it would sell secondhand Airbus super-jumbos as head-of-state aircraft.