The concept of a Supernova is incredible. They are the result of a Supergiant star that has reached the end of its life, collapsing upon itself before exploding into the greatest astronomical event known to man. All the heavy elements it creates are flung out across the cosmos; these building blocks of Life then spring from the star’s death.
After sixteen years of production, the Airbus A380 will fade away, a victim of its own delusion of grandeur. To be honest, Airbus shouldered an impressive undertaking designing and building the flying behemoth, but Airbus’s timing was a tad off … by about thirty years.
Many of its fans spoke of a wonderful experience, flying on the largest airliner, though it is unclear how different one airliner is from another as seen from the inside. Several A380 operators boasted many comforts, including passenger showers or a tended bar in First Class. The coach passengers were seated as tightly as any other airliner, with a maximum seating of 853 passengers. The A380’s safety record may stand firm, but the small number of A380s flying does not demonstrate a superior safety history.
For its size, the maximum payload was somewhat disappointing; the A380 operator’s empty weight was 611,000 pounds and a maximum take-off weight of 1,268,000. This allowed, depending on the distance dictating the maximum fuel needed to carry, a maximum payload of 184,000 pounds, which is 14.5% of the maximum takeoff weight. Add to this the four engines required to move the colossus, the fuel economy was reduced by two engines.
The aircraft is impressive; however, in airliner years, it came of age just in time for its funeral. With an assembly line shut down date of 2021, the A380 had only one more year’s success (2005 – 2021) than its less popular older brother, the A310 (1983 – 1998).
There are more impressive lifetimes, such as the B707 and the DC-8, both of which introduced the transatlantic jet age. The B747, which bragged piano bars and lounges in the early 1970s, was the VIP of wide body elegance; it evolved through different looks to meet different needs, from the B747SP to the new 747-8. The B747’s arrival put Boeing up front in a technical superiority that lasts to this day. Boeing’s success lived on in the B737, B757, B767, B777 and B787, each one answered the travel industry’s needs, especially as international travel demanded twin-engine operations over water.
The A380 tried unsuccessfully to out-Boeing Boeing; it arrived at a time when fuel economy meant everything; that twin-engine aircraft were better for the growing passenger travel industry. The A380 was late to the party with its four engines and lengthy boarding/deplaning times, plus the limited number of airports capable of landing and parking the super jumbo.
But most importantly, Airbus missed Boeing’s one important lesson from decades before: As time marches on, build to need, but then refit to last beyond the original purpose. Airbus has sold the A300 as a freighter since the early nineties; the A310 has been converted from passenger airliners to cargo, but Airbus did not make all the conversions, leaving the supplemental type certifications to other vendors. Perhaps, someday, Airbus will move to convert their A320s or A330s to cargo aircraft, but in this arena Boeing is miles ahead. It may be possible that the A380 can make a comeback in cargo hauling, but, it too, will be post production.
Ironically, Airbus had firm orders to two of the largest cargo movers in the world: FedEx and UPS. In 2006, the two airlines saw what Airbus failed to recognize, that the A380 was designed to haul freight, period. However, Airbus flunked the rollout; delays soured the airplane to the two cargo airlines, causing them to look elsewhere and not look back. FedEx opted for a brand new cargo versions of the B777 and B767, while UPS continued its B767 fleet buildup and invested in the new B747-8.
If you strip away all the luxuries loaded into an A380, the empty weight of the airliner drops considerably; 853 seats, overhead bins, carpets, all but one bathroom, these all add up to thousands of pounds of useless weight, payload weight the airline never makes money from (this was why the piano lounge concept died in the seventies; it cost too much in fuel). Replace those non-essential creature comforts with main deck cargo loading systems and a forward 9-G bulkhead; the cargo aircraft’s empty weight will increase, but not even close to the passenger version’s empty weight. Less aircraft weight means more profitable cargo weight can be loaded.
Rarely, if ever, does a cargo flight ever reach its maximum payload weight for the simple reason that bulk prevents it, i.e. ten pounds of feathers takes up more room than ten pounds of bolts. The interior empty square footage of a wide body airliner is incredible; boxes and envelopes can be stuffed into every square inch of space, never coming close to meeting the maximum payload. The extra weight allowance assures fuel needed to reach further can be pumped into the wings, thus guaranteeing a greater distance reached for moving freight. This comes in handy when contracting to a shipper, like the Military. Cha-ching, cha-ching!
The profit a heavy box brings to an airline far exceeds that of a passenger taking the same amount of space. To the point, a passenger and his seat takes up 41,472 cubic inches of volume and the average weight is 185 pounds per passenger – the seat is not added in; the airline never makes money off the weight of the seat, whether they fill it or not. A coach ticket between Los Angeles to JFK airport costs an average coach passenger about $200, while a First Class passenger pays $1000. That is between $200 to $1000 per passenger that the airline makes, minus the cost of Wi-fi, flight attendant pay, drinks, weight of carry-ons, emergency oxygen systems, weight per minimum number of bathrooms, gate agents and airport gate rental fees.
What profit does a box of equivalent dimension and weight as the above mentioned passenger, make for a cargo airline? A box with the same volume of space (41,472 cubic inches) and weight (185 pounds) costs an overnight cargo shipper, according to the shipping service requested, between $2200 and $4000. There was a saying we had in the cargo airlines: Boxes don’t eat, drink, or complain … EVER!
It might have been incredibly profitable if Airbus designed the A380 as a cargo airliner for so many reasons. The four engines would have been a benefit giving heavy freight a better range; less landings equals more straight flight time and less wear-and-tear on the airliner. The interior volume could have been better utilized and not wasted on profit-killing luxuries. The A380 might have given Boeing’s B747 a good competitive race, particularly at airports where shipments meet, e.g. coastal maritime shipping ports or straight routes into Middle Eastern Asia and the Far East. Unfortunately, Airbus designed the A380 to show up the B747, to be the biggest jumbo jet made. It was a gamble that, not only did not pan out, but may have cost Airbus too much profit. Through its many evolutions, the B747 introduced the age of wide body passenger flight in the seventies; it then pioneered another age: international freight hauling. Its versatility made Boeing the true supergiant of the airliner industry; the B747’s fame continues to shine like a supernova; its influence will breathe life into the future of cargo airliners. The A380, however, will fade to obscurity, becoming what a supernova leaves behind – an impossible to see, Black Hole.