Was The Airbus A380plus A Mistake?

A photo of Airbus' proposed A380plus development study with the refined sharklets that would add fuel efficiency

Some label the Airbus A380 as the King of the Skies, while others label it as an aircraft that killed the 747.

However, the capabilities of the A380 have always remained impressive. Airbus, though, has struggled since the conception of the aircraft to sell the aircraft to a broader range of customers.

In 2021, the European plane maker ended production of the program after completing a relatively minimal order backlog. Additionally, a shutdown came from Emirates cancelling orders in 2019.

However, one area that the manufacturer definitely got wrong, many would say, is timing. People argue that the A380 came years too late and at a time when airlines were moving away from quad-engine aircraft and towards more efficient twin-engine planes.

The Proposition Of The A380plus

When Airbus put forward an A380plus, well, eyebrows raised. How, after all, could a company that seemingly failed to sustain the life of a predecessor variant reignite interest in such a program?

The A380plus was intended to act as an upgraded variant of the A380-800. A variant that has remained the sole type offered to customers since birth. This is despite interest initially in an A380F.

Airbus’ A380plus aimed to improve fuel efficiency and operational performance. Through this mission, the planemaker wanted to turn an aircraft on its head. This would be done by bringing everything customers would want from such a plane that the first iteration didn’t have and receiving it in a new aircraft.

Was This Logic Flawed?

This is not flawed logic on the surface. After all, coming back with a more improved version of something that may not have worked, say, initially as envisaged, can be very beneficial.

However, it’s essential to understand that the measures of the aviation industry are finer, and this logic doesn’t always stand up.

Understanding The A380plus Changes

Airbus’ proposed enhancements included aerodynamic improvements and an increase in capacity. One of the most significant differences noticeable from the exterior would be the addition of sharklets.

The winglets, as described by the European plane maker, would provide up to 4% fuel burn savings and see a 13% cost reduction per seat compared to the A380-800.

The Airbus COO at the time explained that the A380plus is an efficient way to offer even better economics and improved operational performance simultaneously.

It is a new step for our iconic aircraft to serve worldwide, best fast -growing traffic and evolving needs of the A380 customers. The A380 is well proven as the solution to increasing congestion at large airports and offering a unique passenger -preferred experience.

Airbus COO

Concerns Around The End Of Quad-Engine Planes

Despite the A380plus making headlines worldwide and lots of discussion surrounding its potential, the aircraft never flew. This was down to several vital factors that equally contributed to its demise, hardly before it even started as a project.

It was generally hard for Airbus to pitch a quad-engined plane when options such as the 787 and 777 series over at Boeing and even Airbus’ very own A350 existed.

Why would customers go for something that could have far worse repercussions on their business when safer options were out there?

The age of the quad jets is now entering its twilight, but back then, it was very much in its sunset phase. As a result, no matter how hard the manufacturer tried, and yes, while the improvements were there, customers weren’t keen enough to commit to the study and fly the aircraft.

Pair this with the A380’s capacity, and the pool of airlines it’d work at is relatively small. It can also only work on specific routes. This significantly narrows down Airbus’ customer base and target audience.

No matter how Airbus adjusted the A380, it was always going to be a double-decker plane, and in this case, it was always going to be a quad-engine, too.

Emirates’ Lack Of Interest

Emirates is the largest operator of the Airbus A380 series. So, when Airbus comes knocking with a new variant, there’s significant discussion over Emirates’ potential movement.

The Dubai-based airline has expressed interest in an improved version of the wide-body plane on numerous occasions. When the largest customer comes knocking, many would argue that as a plane maker, you listen.

While not precisely the A380plus, Emirates has and continues to advocate for an A380neo strongly. This is essentially a new engine option for the A380. Emirates believed if it could be done, they’d commit and purchase it.

Emirates eyes an A380neo as demand continues to surge, and the airline finds ways to navigate slot restrictions that will begin impacting airports worldwide. The A380 allows them to fly a much larger capacity into key hubs over other aircraft types.

An A380neo Is Easier Said Than Done

While an idea from Emirates, the A380neo was easier said than done on Airbus’s end.

While Emirates could shoot through suggestions, Airbus would be the one that would need to engage in discussions with engine manufacturers for investment in new engines for this A380neo.

Ultimately, these engine manufacturers were very reluctant to proceed. They didn’t want to spend the money on an aircraft series that, already at that point, was seeing deliveries slow and no interest.

While a significant investment for any engine maker, it would also require a lot of resources to commit to the program. While Emirates was interested, say, for a Rolls-Royce, several other exciting programs are already in the works which focus primarily on more sustainable travel.

For them, that’s a much larger priority. It’s the same reason key manufacturers don’t want to invest in Boom Supersonic Overture.

However, the case could be that Boom has a far weaker business model and future sustainability within the industry than Airbus. It’s the same principle, though.

Therefore, Airbus not progressing with the A380neo does make sense despite Emirates executives pleading on their doors for the aircraft.

If their largest customer expressed interest in acquiring a new A380 only under one condition and you go down another avenue, you’ll question whether the project will succeed.

Was Revealing the A380plus A Mistake?

So was it a mistake for Airbus not to pursue the A380 plus further?

There was always going to be a general lack of interest. However, it never hurts to try and test the waters. Airbus saw the potential for improvement in the A380 series. However, it wasn’t meant to be.

In the meantime, it’ll be the likes of the A350-1000, 787 10 and 777X leading the line as part of the next generation of wide-body aircraft.

Sometimes, projects remain concepts for many reasons. However, unfortunate, they don’t get off the ground and fly; the knowledge acquired from such an endeavour is always valuable.

We’ve seen this proven time and time again at multiple manufacturers who revealed particular concepts and development studies that never flew.

However, a decade later, the company revisited the study and plucked the best bits from it. They concluded by applying and tweaking ideas to a more well-rounded concept that worked and would succeed within the industry.

Daniel Fowkes
04 Nov 2023
· Aircraft 

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  1. I mean with some tweaking the 777xs engines produce 134k each while 14k total lost is alot it’s probably not unreasonable as rolls royce is making their own version a 2 engine version doesn’t seem that far

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