The Evolution of the Airbus A380: How It was Designed

You might not know this, but Airbus first had the idea of the A380 in 1988, good seventeen years before the first prototype rolled out of the Airbus Factory. What happened in that little known period of history, and what other high density aircraft concepts did Airbus consider? Let’s explore the evolution of the Airbus A380 design, and how we got the plane that we know and love today!

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Designing the aircraft of the future in the 1980s wouldn’t be easy. Engineers knew that passenger air traffic was growing at 5% per year, and set to double by the year 2000 and triple by 2025. Thus, the plane of the future would favor capacity over speed, and be designed to solve the problem of overcapacity-airports simultaneously.

Airbus, who had recently launched its Airbus A340 program in June 1987, needed to bring a bigger plane to the market that complemented the existing line of airbus aircraft, and competed against the Boeing 747 market dominance that Boeing had enjoyed for so long, and had only recently launched its Dash 400 series of the plane.

Boeing

Not only that, around the same time, Lockheed was working on a very large subsonic transport and McDonnell Douglas its ownMD-12; both programs that ran into issues and had their own respective flaws – something the team at Airbus was keen to avoid. We have two videos on both of these planes that you can check out after this.

The program would be called the Airbus UHCA, or the Ultra-High-Capacity-Airliner, and would be a secret project even from Airbus’s CEO. The small team building the proposal worked in the shadows, to avoid competition from discovering their plans and to avoid the media fallout from risking the very project itself.

On October 1988, the head of the small group of designers, Jean Roeder reached out to the leadership team for a lunch meeting and presented them a model of the A380. Remarking later of the CEO reaction, “he was clearly surprised; he did not expect anything that big”.

Going big and bold won the CEOs trust, and the greenlight was given for further development.

The team set to work, and drew up a list of requirements to get this plane to the market.

First, the aircraft needed to carry at least 500 passengers, to fit above the passenger specifications of the Airbus A340 and prevent any cannablisation of Airbus’ sales.

Second, the plane needed to be better and more fuel efficient than the Boeing 747-400. Airbus was targeting a number of around 15% more fuel-efficient.

Lastly, it needed to be built with then modern technology, production lines and existing airbus components. If it was cheap, then that would be a bonus.

With so much at stake, Airbus decided to go in a radical new direction and invite its four partners to come up each with a separate UHCA design. The teams were from Aerospatiale, Deutsche Aerospace (DASA), British Aerospace and Construcciones Aeronautics (CASA), and they had only until 1992 to come up with Airbus’ future aircraft. Airbus themselves didn’t actually believe that one of the teams would put together a completed concept, but rather that they could pick and choose features from each to build the aircraft – thus lowering the risk that they would not be successful within the timeline.

The most important part of these designs was the cross section.

The designs …

The first design came from Jean Roeder himself at Airbus. Called the Horizontal double bubble, it used existing Airbus A340 fuselages married into a double bubble design side by side. This cross section would mean that the aircraft would sit twelve passengers across in a 2-2-2 space, 2-2-2 configuration, with a wall down the middle. This design would be cheaper and feature A340 wings, tails and other systems that were already used. The design got as far as the wind tunnel before being deemed too inefficient.

Next up was a circular cross-section that was a giant circle, with a perfect pi diameter. While it was perfectly aerodynamic and structurally efficient to pressurize, it actually had issues with upper deck space with curved ceilings and not enough room in cargo hold.

The opposite design to the circular was the cloverleaf. It had plenty of space onboard and even allowed gigantic amounts of cargo. To build it, the team proposed either a new large circular design, or attaching an Airbus A320 airframe on top of a A340. But where it had excellent cargo capacity, it didn’t pass wind tunnel tests. There were other problems too.

A380 vice president for engineering Robert Lafontan said, “If you have a narrow-body mated to the top of a wide-body, then it is too restrictive – there is no room for growth and the evacuation rules make it uneconomical”

The fourth concept was proposed by DASA, called the A2000 that was bigger than the Airbus today. It would sit 615 passengers on three decks, with first class passengers having cabins on the bottom level. A true triple-deck aircraft which you can check out here in this video.

The last design was called the Ovoid, and it put together the circular and the cloverleaf, and the key learning of the A2000 from DASA. Ideally, it was the perfect combination of all the designs sans the double-bubble and would represent the aircraft cross-section, going forward.

However, the year of 1992 would be a rough for the aviation industry. The failure of the MD-12 to realize the double-decker dream and emerging issues at the MD long-beach factory itself caused Airbus to slow down development, and be far more cautious. After all, this program was estimated to cost a staggering 6 billion euros, which was not to be taken lightly.

MD-12

Airbus would work closely with its ten selected airlines who each had different criteria, such as Lufthansa who wanted one for European travel, Qantas who needed a plane to cross the pacific, and Singapore for its Singapore to London route. The design team would propose two different UHCA aircraft:

The two UHCA aircraft … 

The first would 600-800, with the upper range 800 all-economy seater designed for the Japanese market – to rival the success that Boeing had there with the Boeing 747 SR.

The latter 800-1050 design was proposed with a gigantic wing, 63% bigger than the current Airbus A340, and be 260 feet long.

At this point, it would be a disservice not to mention the brief but stunning partnership between rivals Boeing and Airbus’ partner firm, DASA in 1993 to 1995. It’s such a fantastic tale that it needs its own future video. All that you need to know now is that the result of this cross pollination is that the UHCA program was delayed and allowed Airbus to rejig the design and put together a near-final concept called the A3XX.

A3XX

Airbus would integrate the design teams and combine three concepts into one, and by 1995 the A3XX was starting to look a lot more like the current A380 that we have today. But fascinatingly, Airbus couldn’t build the plane in its current format, as a loose structure of independent European companies – they would have to restructure into a single entity to balance out costs, and bring this gigantic airframe to the market.

During the restructuring, Airbus would put the final touches together on the A3XX, such as adding in 10 abreast seating to the plane to have a 3-4-3 configuration; to avoid, and I quote, the ‘American Prisoner’ middle seat, found on American planes with a 2-5-2 sitting configuration.

Confident and closer to launching the program, Airbus started to shop around the three derivatives of the Airbus aircraft: the A3XX-100, – 100R and the A3XX-200. The first would carry 555 passengers in three classes, to 7,500 nautical miles. The -100R would be flying the same passengers, 8,500 nautical miles, and the -200 would trade range for capacity with 656 seats. The final choice of cross-section then drove many other aspects of the configuration. Relatively speaking, the fuselage is, for example, quite short compared with the dimensions of the wing. This would mean that the wing would be designed for bigger stretches of the A380, which we have done a full video of on the channel.

Challenges … 

Around this time Airbus worked on the various challenges that such a large plane would incur, such as what engines to use to power the aircraft – with Airbus asking for a next generation engine, to how to navigate airports and taxiways; with even folding wings like on the Boeing 777X considered. Plus, at one point, Airbus even tested removing the vertical stabilizer on the tail and using canard wings on the upper deck instead! What an interesting design choice that would have been, but alas it would be too unpractical; it would get in the way of jet bridges.

Lufthansa, who had been an airline partner consultant during this time, asked Airbus for a shorted version of the A3XX, dubbed the A3XX-50 that would carry only 480 passengers to a range of 7,500 nautical miles, using existing engines like those on the then-new Boeing 777. At the same time, Airbus would also add the -100E, or later known as the A380F, cargo version at FedEx’s request.

Airbus A380F

Finally, after millions of dollars and years of work, the design was frozen in 1998 and Airbus was ready to launch the new A3XX at the Singapore Air Show. But seemingly right on que, the Asian market was struck by a financial crisis. Airbus said that because of this, they would delay launching the program till Airlines were ready; however this was not the real reason. Airbus was struggling with achieving the second criteria that was outlined at the start of this video – that the A3XX had to achieve at least 15-20% of the fuel efficiency over the 747-400.

To try and reach this, Airbus delayed the program again by another nine months, and pushed the wing size again from 8400 square feet to 8800 square feet, adding small winglets like those used on the A320, and also changed the composite materials used in the construction – making it more expensive, yes; but also better fuel efficient for airlines.

With this goal achieved, it was time to actually sell the plane. Airbus’ plane was to try and secure a wide range of orders, of only a few aircraft, with as many legacy carriers as possible, in each of the airline alliances – one world, skyteam and star alliance. They reasoned that once one or two airlines had picked up 3 or 4 aircraft, others would follow suit, within the alliance. Airbus was focusing on airlines like British Airways, Air France, Singapore and Qantas. However, it was a surprise that the new middle eastern carrier Emirates was the first to jump on the A3XX bandwagon. Air France soon followed with its own interest in 10 aircraft – likely because the A3XX program would have final assembly in Toulouse – home ground for the airline.

Emirates

On the 19th of December, 2000, the A380 was officially launched with the name chosen for two reasons. With an 8 selected to represent the double-decked fuselage cross-section that looked like an 8, and 8 being a lucky number in some Asian countries. The numbers A350 and A360 had been considered. The number A370 was rejected, as 7 was well known as the 747 number.

The development cost of the A380 had grown to 11–14 billion euros when the first aircraft was completed, from the humble 4-6 billion euros at the start of the program.

Airbus would launch two versions, with the A3XX-100 becoming the A380-800, and the A3XX-50 becoming the smaller A380-700. The A3XX-200, the larger version, would be the proposed -900 version and the freighter version, given the F designation.

Remarking at the launch, Manfred Bischoff, the then Chairman of Airbus said, ” Airbus has a new flagship, this is a major breakthrough for Airbus, as a full-range competitor on world markets – we are convinced that this aircraft will have a bright and extremely successful future”

Now in 2021: 

Airbus A380

Today in the year 2021, we can look back and see that the A380 was designed for a market of 1988, where the world was optimistic about growth and it seemed that hub-to-spoke travel would grow forever. Alas, Airbus with all its might, couldn’t stop the train in time and switch tracks like Boeing to the new hub-to-hub model, and the A380 was built simply too late for the world.

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