Between the Wright brothers'
first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and today, there have
only been a few massively transforming moments in passenger
airplane design. Arguably, these might feature such things
as the DC-3, bringing reliable air travel to the masses, the
first ever jet, the 707, and the 747 which introduced a new era
of affordable air travel for everyone.
One more defining moment is
surely the Airbus A380 - the biggest passenger plane ever, with
two full passenger decks, and also marking a turnaround from
squashing more seats ever more uncomfortably into a metal tube,
offering more space per passenger, and an improved flying
As clearly wonderful as this
plane is, it almost didn't get built, and it represents the
culmination of more than a decade of concepts and designs from
both Boeing and Airbus, some outrageously innovative, and others
The long wait is now over, and
the final result clearly shows the care and thought that went
into developing this amazing new plane.
Background to the Airbus A380
The Airbus A380 didn't just
spring into being, unexpected and unannounced. It
represents the culmination of years of discussion and research
by both Boeing and Airbus, and is held either to be a wise or
very stupid move on Airbus' part.
Probably no other category
of airplane has been so widely debated, prior to its launch, as
has the successor to the Boeing 747 jumbo jet. The history
that precedes the A380 makes for interesting and relevant
Please keep reading - we'll
get to the A380 soon enough. However, to understand the
history and development of the A380 it is necessary first to
talk at length about Boeing's 747.
Boeing's 747 'jumbo jet'
first took to the skies on 9 Feb, 1969, and was first operated
commercially, by Pan Am, on 21 Jan, 1970.
These days, with the 747
commonplace (over 1500 have been sold) and other planes getting
closer and closer to it in size, it is hard to remember how, at
the time the 747 appeared, it was such a mammoth step forward in
terms of size from the planes that had flown before it.
The previously largest
passenger plane was the 12 year old 707. In comparison,
the 747 weighed more than double the 707 and carried more than
twice as many passengers. It was, at the same time, both a
huge leap forward in size and capabilities, but also almost an
'inevitable' continuation of what had been, until then, a steady
trend towards ever bigger and better planes.
But since the 747's release,
development seemed to slow, and while Boeing successively
tweaked the 747 design, enhancing the 747-100 with a 747-200
then -300 then -400 model, each time making it slightly bigger
and giving it slightly longer range, the forward momentum of
aircraft design seemed to stall.
For some 30 years, Boeing's
747 reigned supreme as the 'biggest and the best' airplane in
the skies, and the complete lack of competition allowed Boeing
to enjoy large profit margins on 747 sales and to strategically
pick up airline customers that had almost no choice but to buy
the 747 if they needed the capabilities of that plane.
The 747's supremacy starts to
As the years since the 747
release stretched into decades, Boeing found itself in an
interesting situation - while the 747 design was aging, Boeing
had no compelling financial incentive to update it with a
completely new aircraft, which would probably require a $10 -
$15 billion investment. As long as the 747 had no
competitors, Boeing was content to (in marketing terms) 'milk
its cash cow' for all it was worth.
Boeing wanted to protect its
position, and didn't want to encourage Airbus to develop a
competitor to the 747, and it did this variously by decrying the
need for a successor to the 747 and/or claiming that it was
going to build a successor itself, while opining to all who
cared to listen that there weren't enough potential sales of a
super jumbo to support two competing planes.
As the years passed, the gap
between the 747 and its closest competitors started to close,
with both new Boeing planes and Airbus planes offering
increasing seat capacities, and sometimes longer range and
better fuel economy. Competition was appearing - not in
the form of a bigger, better plane, but rather in the form of
smaller (but nearly as big) and better planes - typically better
in the sense of longer range or lower operating costs or more
versatile application to different airline routes.
Airplanes are often compared
on the basis of their passenger capacities. But it is hard
to state exactly the number of seats in a 747 because this
depends on at least two variables - simplistically, how close
together the seats are spaced, and what the mix of first class,
business class and coach class seats is. Clearly, a first
class lie-flat sleeper seat takes up a great deal more space
than a narrow coach class seat.
But, to give a feeling of
scale, in typical three class configurations, a current model
747-400 holds between 358 - 416 passengers, and a two class
configuration (only business and coach class) holds about 450 -
524 passengers. The planes have a typical range of about
7200 - 8000 miles.
Compare this with Boeing's
777 which can hold about 368 passengers in three classes or 451
in two classes, and which can offer a range up to an incredible
10,800 miles, or an Airbus A340 with 380/419 passengers and a
range of 8860 miles, and it can be clearly seen that the 747 no
longer has much of an advantage in terms of passenger capacity
And so, the commanding
presence and large part of the market that the 747 dominated
grew smaller and smaller, and by the late 1990s, new orders for
passenger versions of the 747 had all but dried up completely.
None of this happened
overnight, but rather evolved very slowly over the decades since
the 747 project was first commenced in 1965. Initially,
development was in the form of adding to the base 747 design,
but after the 747-400 series (development started in 1985 and
the first plane flew in 1989) the concept of an entirely new
plane became more popular.
The need for a successor to the
No plane bought long haul
air travel to the masses like the 747 did. The 747
transformed the economics of long distance air travel, making it
affordable for normal people to travel internationally,
something that formerly had been the preserve only of the
The 747's reliability
further encouraged the growth of air travel, and this growth in
air travel helped to pull new model smaller planes into
production too, allowing for a broader range of airplane
solutions to be deployed by airlines.
Air travel grew at a rapid
pace, and much faster than the development of the infrastructure
needed to handle the increased air traffic. Both air
traffic control and airport capacity increasingly became
overwhelmed at some congested key cities and airports (eg
Chicago, New York, and London).
Operational choice :
high density hub flights or smaller direct flights
However, the growth in air
traffic also gave the airlines an interesting choice of
solutions. Up to a certain point, the increasing numbers
of passengers were handled by simply adding more flights, but
with congestion issues now becoming a concern, the airlines
wanted to consider two very different options - either operating
fewer flights in bigger airplanes, or operating flights not
between major hubs, but perhaps between two secondary cities, or
maybe between a hub at one end and a secondary city at the other
For example, say you want to
fly from Portland, OR to Lyon in France. In the
traditional hub approach, you'd fly from Portland perhaps to
Chicago or New York (a hub) and then to perhaps London or Paris
(also hubs) and then from there to Lyon. If an airline
wished to retain this hub focused service, and if either or both
hubs were congested, it would want to increase the size of the
plane it flew so as to move more people with the same or fewer
flights. This makes obvious good sense.
But developments in new
smaller airplanes were making the newer planes almost as cost
effective, per passenger, as a 747, and in this environment, a
different concept was that if there is enough traffic to support
direct service between secondary airports, or between a hub and
a secondary airport, then this gives more customer choices and
better positions an airline to get more market share.
In our example, this might
mean nonstop flights between Portland and Lyon, or perhaps
nonstop flights between Portland and London, then connecting on
to Lyon. The first scenario relieves congestion in both
New York and London, the second scenario relieves congestion in
New York only.
Which is the better choice
for an airline to make? And, for the airplane
manufacturers, which is the better plane to offer the airlines?
A bigger plane, or a more fuel efficient smaller plane?
This question plagued Boeing
for a long time, and, prior to it announcing the 747-8 in 2005
(see below), it ended up choosing the more fuel efficient
smaller plane option - the very successful 787 that is due to
start flying sometime soon.
But, in reality, the
question is poorly phrased and embodied within it a false
assumption. The false assumption is that the airlines are
confronted with an 'either/or' choice - smaller planes on
secondary routes or (but not and) larger planes on main hub to
most cases, an airline needs both options. While Portland
to London might be viable as a direct route, think of a smaller
city - Boise, ID, perhaps. It is unlikely that there'll
ever be support for nonstop Boise-London flights, and so
airlines will choose to route London bound passengers from Boise
via a hub and so still need to optimize their most popular
routes for an appropriate number of daily flights, each capable
of taking as many passengers as the market needs.
Design choice : Longer
range or greater passenger capacity
Another aspect of this
debate was a trade-off between increased passenger capacity and
longer range. Longer range planes can fly further without
stopping (of course), which has operational benefits to the
airlines (unnecessary stops are expensive for an airline,
involving airport fees, reduced productive usage of the plane,
and excessive fuel cost to take off again) and which appeal to
most travelers, who are keen to minimize the stops and delays on
One of the implications of
flying 'point to point' between secondary cities is that many
times these routes would be longer than a two or three stop
routing involving stops in hubs along the way, requiring a plane
with longer range capabilities.
At an earlier stage of
airplane design, there was typically a trade-off between either
long range or greater passenger capacity. But more
recently, improved airplane design and greater fuel efficiency
has removed the need to choose between long range or greater
passenger numbers. Planes are now approaching the maximum
range ever needed (ie about 12,000 miles, which is far enough to
fly from anywhere in the world to anywhere else in the world),
and even the very largest planes can also offer some of the very
longest flying ranges.
This issue has increasingly
become a non-issue.
The Airbus and Boeing
responses to these issues
Airbus initially placed its
bet on a super-jumbo, and then covered its bet with an improved
mid-size plane (the A350), while Boeing adopted the opposite
strategy, eventually deciding to give priority first to its improved mid-size plane
(the 787) and then secondarily to its expanded 747-8.
To get an independent view
on the bigger plane vs smaller market choice, heavily congested
Heathrow Airport in London (the world's third busiest airport)
is projecting that by 2016, one in every eight flights through
its airport will be an A380. In comparison, only one in
every nine flights at LHR today is a 747. In other words,
Heathrow is expecting that, within ten years of its release, the
A380 will be more popular than the 747 is today, 30 years after
Clearly Heathrow sees a huge
need for bigger planes such as the A380. And with 202 A380
planes sold so far, that perception seems to be increasingly
shared by airlines around the world.
Part 1 of a four part
series on the Airbus A380 - please
Airbus A380 antecedents
Differing plans for a 747 successor
A380 completion, configuration, and controversy
Inside an Emirates A380
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8 Aug 2008, last update
21 Jul 2020
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