Why the end of the A380 superjumbo is no surprise

Passengers loved the double-decker, but market dynamics determined its future

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The end of the Airbus A380 is hardly a surprise for the industry as airlines increasingly turned towards smaller and more fuel-efficient jets and the program became heavily reliant on its biggest customer Emirates.

Although popular with passengers impressed by its bars and showers, the iconic double-decker was a tough sale to airlines and its future was in doubt as Airbus struggled to find new customers. Advancements in technology meant that twin-engine planes such as the Boeing Dreamliner 787 and the Airbus A350 were more economically feasible on long-haul routes compared to the fuel-guzzling plane with at least 500 seats that few carriers could operate at full capacity.

"It reflects the change in industry dynamics where airline management is more risk averse than earlier days," said John Strickland, aviation analyst and director at JLS Consulting.  "Airlines can get large planes with better cargo payload and two engines such as the 777 and A350, so why would you order a four engine plane, taking the risk of high capital expenditure and flying more seats? The dynamics moved quickly to disadvantage the A380."

The world's biggest passenger jet is reaching the end of the runway after just 12 years in service, marking a major moment in commercial aviation and the end of an era for superjumbos. Production will cease in 2021 following Emirates' decision to cut back its orders, though the airline said it would continue operating them into the 2030s.

Airbus had positioned the A380 to meet increasing demand for air travel, betting that congestion at major airports would make a compelling business case for carriers to use the larger aircraft.

While that works in congested hubs such as London Heathrow with its two runways and the world's busiest international airport in Dubai, aviation dynamics are changing. Governments are working to expand airports to keep up with demand and new aircraft are enabling direct links between city pairs that threaten to undercut the mega-hub model of some airlines.

The double-decker was Airbus' answer to rival Boeing's 747 aircraft, which first started flying 50 years ago and monopolised the market for very large aircraft. The European plane maker has delivered only 234 of the A380 jets so far, a fraction of the more than 1,500 747 jumbo jets that Boeing has manufactured in the last half century. The A380 programme faced early problems in its development stage that delayed the project and when it began its first commercial flight in 2007, the global economic crisis was looming ahead, making airlines hesitant to adopt the jet in their fleets during difficult times. Sales momentum slowed while cancellations piled up.

In the end the A380's life cycle depended on Emirates. The Dubai airline was an enthusiastic early adopter of the superjumbo, ordering a total 162 aircraft as part of a strategy that made it the world's biggest long-haul airline. However, the airline slashed its purchase plan and there were no further buyers. Emirates said it would take 14 more of the planes by 2021 and keep them in its fleet "well into the 2030s."

“We have no substantial A380 backlog and hence no basis to sustain production, despite all our sales efforts with other airlines in recent years,” Airbus chief executive Tom Enders, said in a statement on Thursday. Airbus said as many as 3,500 jobs are affected by the decision.

Adding to the program's issues is the lack of a strong second-hand market for the jets. Much like the Concorde, the A380's demise was brought on more by airline economics rather than its popularity among passengers and aviation enthusiasts.