April 1, 2005
The new Airbus A380—which dwarfs the Boeing 747—is Europe’s huge, high- stakes gamble on the future of international air travel.
If you’ve ever thought that the cramped misery of a long international flight would be bearable if you could only stretch your legs and maybe take a shower along the way, you’re the sort of customer Airbus is counting on to get its huge new A380 model off the ground. Weighing in at 1.2 million pounds fully loaded, with a tail that tops out at nearly 80 feet, a 261-foot wingspan, and a 240-foot-long fuselage, the plane is by far the largest ever introduced—capable of carrying 35 percent more seats than its closest rival, the Boeing 747. This pack-in-more-passengers gambit has worked before: when Boeing introduced the 747, it revolutionized air travel, making long-distance flights possible—and profitable because of the number of passengers the plane’s wider body accommodated. But that was 35 years ago, when air travel was an exploding new market. Now, with oil prices rising, terrorist threats driving insurance premiums up, and profit margins shrinking, a bigger aircraft looks like a gamble. Airbus is banking on good design, according to Mary Anne Greczyn, a spokesperson for Airbus North America. “Each airline will customize its own interior, but the basics are sleek and modern. Our designers initiated this project with the idea of a contemporary skyborne cruise ship.” It’s still a high-stakes bet. The behemoth cost $15 billion to develop, so Airbus needs to sell about 250 planes just to break even. The A380 will make its first test flight this spring and should see commercial use by summer 2006.
“The A380 takes advantage of every modern technology that exists, including lighter composite materials and four new extra-efficient engines,” Greczyn says. “That, combined with the more-passengers-per-plane concept, is where the savings come from—it’s all about fuel burn per person.” Its fuel consumption (about 95 miles to the gallon) is about 13 percent lower than current models. According to Airbus’s projections, the A380 will make carrying one passenger a mile between 15 and 20 percent cheaper.
The plane’s double-deck construction allows a separate entrance for first- and business-class passengers, so they won’t have to mix with the masses when boarding. Other enticements for the upper classes will vary from carrier to carrier. “The flexibility of the Airbus interior is one of our key attractions,” Greczyn says. “In the airline business, branding is very specific, and that includes interiors.” Australian carrier Qantas has hired Marc Newson—mastermind behind the Skybed, its comfy business-class seat/bed—to design A380 interiors, and Richard Branson has promised double beds to complement the mildly naughty Virgin brand.
The plane is being produced in two basic configurations—the A380F, a freighter that can carry 150 tons of cargo, and the A380, the passenger version. It seats between 555 and 840 passengers, depending on how the classes are configured—the lower capacity being a typical three-class arrangement, with first-class enjoying more of the benefits of the plane’s spacious construction; and the larger capacity being an all-economy-class setup. “All of those configurations are up to the airlines,” Greczyn says. “They decide whether they want wider aisles or wider seats, beds or standard seats.” While the all-economy class’s high profit yield will make it appealing to some carriers, Dubai-based Emirates Airlines—which ordered 43 planes—plans to go to the other extreme, with all-first-class planes featuring private rooms with showers, onboard swimming pools, and other luxury amenities.
Special in-flight lounge areas in all three classes are part of the plan; each carrier can customize this space according to its brand. “The airlines are being very guarded about what they will offer in their planes because they want to be able to have a big ‘ta-da’ moment when they debut their interiors; though Virgin’s Richard Branson did mention they will have a casino and a salon of some sort,” Greczyn notes. Other possibilities for onboard relaxing include shops, restaurants, spas, libraries, and gyms.
As yet no American passenger carrier has ordered the plane, and most airports will have to undergo some construction to accommodate the monster bird. Many airports will need wider runways and two-level gates for double-deck boarding. Heathrow has had to spend $841 million on such renovations already; JFK, Los Angeles, and other major international hubs in the United States face similar costs.