Video – A380: How Can an Airplane so Good Fail so Spectacularly?

Hear Jim Anderton's take on manufacturing issues in End of the Line.

Well, Airbus has made the least surprising decision in the aerospace industry….the A380 program is dead. In 2021, the last airframe will roll out of Toulouse and, unless something dramatic happens in terms of 747 demand, the era of jumbo jets will end. So what happened? It’s not as if the hardware was an issue. The A380 is the most impressive achievement in commercial aerospace since Concorde and in terms of seat mile costs, a universal metric for comparing airliner operating costs, an all-economy A380 must surely be the all time winner in constant dollars.
So again, what happened? Here’s my take:

The commercial airframe industry is insane. It takes so much capital and so much time to bring a radically new product to market that airframers bet the company to build something really new. The risk to shareholders is very high and airlines demand considerable discounts from list pricing. As a result, some great ideas, like Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser, never get off the drawing board.
The market for airliners is insane too. Every new aircraft needs a launch customer, often several, and they drive the performance specifications. If the market changes, and it always does between the order and rollout, the airframer ends up altering the specification to chase the latest customer demands. You can plan for a fuselage stretch or an ER version, but what if fuel prices plummet in the meantime?  How can an airframer plan for a Mideast war or a financial collapse?
There’s a technological wall that’s slowing down development. Modern aircraft are safer, operate with half the cockpit crew, burn less fuel and carry a larger useful load than ever before….and they’re slower than they were 50 years ago and back in economy at least, are far less comfortable for passengers. Where are the flying wings and atomic propulsion? If you asked a Boeing 707 engineer in 1959 what commercial aviation would be in 2019, he’d tell you about suborbital spaceplanes and vacations on the moon.
Airports and ATC are antiquated. Airbus used a build-it-and-they-will-come approach to the A380….they assumed that US airport authorities would build out the necessary infrastructure to handle the 380 with modified gates and taxiways and aprons strong and wide enough to take the aircraft. Didn’t happen.

The A380 should have been the start of a new, better age of air travel, like Concorde. Until the entire aviation industry, from airports and ATC to FAA approval and open skies regulation, is cleaned up and modernized, we’re going to stay at 1960 speeds with more expensive aircraft delivering even less passenger comfort, if that’s even possible. And there’s nothing Boeing or Airbus can do about it.

Written by

James Anderton

Jim Anderton is the Director of Content for Mr. Anderton was formerly editor of Canadian Metalworking Magazine and has contributed to a wide range of print and on-line publications, including Design Engineering, Canadian Plastics, Service Station and Garage Management, Autovision, and the National Post. He also brings prior industry experience in quality and part design for a Tier One automotive supplier.