The Airbus A380 saw great success worldwide, becoming the de facto aircraft of choice for Emirates and a flagship plane of Qantas, British Airways, Air France, and many more, to name a few.
But it never got the same success in the United States or the Western hemisphere. Why did none of the big three, United, American, and Delta, order the Airbus A380? What would it have looked like, had they ordered it? Why do these reasons mean hat we will never see big planes in the United States again?
Let’s jump in.
Airbus’ biggest plane, the A380, was certainly within reach of US carriers and should have ticked all the boxes for an airline to turn a considerable profit.
However, no North American, or South American carrier for that matter, ended up with the plane – although two carriers did technically order it, but we will get to that in a moment!
First, let’s discuss what made the A380 attractive in the first place.
With a capacity of 600 passengers depending on configuration, the Airbus A380 is the perfect plane for many airlines to operate. With so many seats, the aircraft can operate the lowest seat cost per passenger than any other plane – meaning in a cut-throat price war, the airline with the A380 will always be able to get ahead of the competition.
This feature also makes it perfect for high capacity airports like London Heathrow, where a landing slot pair is worth millions of dollars – making multiple frequency operations impossible.
The A380 also has an excellent range. Knocking out at around 8,000 nautical miles, for many airlines like Emirates and British Airways, the plane can reach nearly all of their destinations in the world bar a few more remote localities (cough cough Australia).
Thanks to the vast amount of space onboard, the Airbus A380 could fit all sorts of perks for those willing to pay for it, such as beds, private cabins and even showers! Incredible!
Airlines found that using the A380 on routes between hubs to be the most effective, such as linking cities like New York and London, or Singapore to Sydney, and here is where the problem lies with US carriers.
Thus far, we have determined that the A380 works best on long-haul, high-density routes between hubs. However, the North American market is not suited for that type of aircraft.
North American Market
While the North American market does have large hubs like LAX and New York, these airports are only the tip of the airport iceberg in America. In fact, many of the daily flights leaving these hubs are not to another hub, but much smaller regional centers.
These regional center airports are not equipped to take a plane like the Airbus A380, with no jet bridges to reach the 2nd level, or taxiways wide enough to take plane. Let alone have the market demand for 600 seats at a time.
Speaking of market demand, we also need to consider the demand for multiple flights per day. While some routes do have well over 600 seats per day in North America, especially the aforementioned LAX to New York, passengers have shown a preference to choose different times to fly. They want hourly departures, or in the minimal case, a choice of a morning flight, noon flight, evening and late flight. An A380 is not flexible enough to offer these flight times, or in order to do so, the airline would need a fleet of Airbus A380s.
Emirates did manage to do this with its London to Dubai route last year, with multiple A380s leaving per day, but that’s a special case with an airline with plenty of A380s and plenty of demand. A situation that is not replicated in the United States.
Long-haul nature of the Airbus A380
In addition we also need to factor in long-haul nature of the Airbus A380. It has a long boarding time compared to other planes, and flies a long distance. In the united states, many of the routes that are in heavy use are shuttle routes linking major cities. The A380 isn’t designed for quick turn arounds nor short haul routes – although airlines might kick off using the A380 or a tiny route, like the A380 flight from Sydney Canberra which is not open to domestic passengers, ultimately it is not profitable.
Let us talk about profit. The A380 came in a time to the market when twin-jet airlines were all the range like the Boeing 777 and the A330, where you only needed four engines for the most extreme of ocean routes.
If you don’t need to perform these long-haul ops, then it is far cheaper to operate a twin-jet aircraft. For example, a A380 is approximately $22000 an hour to run, a Boeing 787 is approximately $9000 to operate. Airlines would be smarter to operate two services than a single A380, flying each plane to a different destination in a hub-to-speak model than hub-to-hub.
Just to touch on profitability, imagine if a carrier doesn’t fill up a whole a380 plane with passenger. It only has low-seat cost when the plane is full, and believe me it is a lot easier to fill up an entire 300-seater twin-jet than a 600-seater a380.
Lastly the A380 also doesn’t have a 2nd life as a cargo plane unlike the Boeing 747. This is because of a myriad of other factors. Simply put, it isn’t really set up for cargo operations – the aircraft airframe is too heavy when empty that cargo operators will run out of lifting capacity before they run out of empty space onboard. Meaning that UPS and FedEx, who operate daily night flights with cargo and favor a single flight over frequency, don’t see a reason to update to the type.
Both these carriers, FedEx and UPS did order the A380 so technically the title of this video is wrong, two US airline did order it, but they ended up cancelling it. FedEx Express canceled 10 A380s November 27th, 2006 and UPS Airlines canceled 10 A380s March 2nd, 2007 – after delays to the A380 passenger program led the cargo program pushing back almost indefinitely. But you can watch all about the unbuilt variants of the Airbus A380 on this video here…
So, the question remains, did any of the US carriers get close to ordering the Airbus A380? Did United, Delta, or American airlines really consider the double-decker airframe when it was launched back at the turn of this millennium? And if they didn’t, what was their excuse?
Back in 2014, Steve Dickson, Delta’s SVP for flight operations, said: “We don’t see an application for the A380 in our network.”
Dickson added that four-engine planes — such as the A380 — were “not viable” aircraft options for most of Delta’s markets. “The reliability of the two-engine airplanes and the efficiency of them is just too compelling.”
For American airlines, it was actually the airline’s lack of major hubs that made it shy away from the A380. Speaking to Business Insider in 2019, American airlines’ vice president of Planning, Vasu Raja said:
“The reality is that we don’t just funnel all of our traffic into one hub,” he said. “We operate out of nine different hubs in the US, and because of that there’s no single hub where you can pool 500 people’s worth of demand every single day and go make that work. If you could do it, you’d do it on a few routes but not enough to go buy the 20 or 30 or 40 aero planes you would need in order to justify having the infrastructure of an aero plane like that.”
Lastly, looking at United, the preference is to offer as many flights as possible throughout the day.
“[Instead of] one flight a day and fill up an A380, we’d rather serve [a market] with a couple widebodies if the demand was there because business passengers certainly like that,” Rainey told Flight global.
According to Rainey, high frequency is the name of the game for important money-making routes, such as New York to London. Sand United Airlines CFO John Rainey said that the mammoth Airbus jet simply “doesn’t work” for the airline’s network.
As for the other carriers in the United States such as JetBlue, Frontier, Alaskan, and so forth, they had all moved onto twin-jet engines and were likely not in a place during the aviation market depression following 9/11 to consider the aircraft – well worth half a billion dollars in the early 2000s.
For a fun experiment, should we consider the question of what market conditions or reasons would make a US carrier wat or even need an A380?
There are a few ways off to top of my head. We might have seen an A380 be deployed for weekend flights to and from Hawaii for holiday makers trying to escape for the weekend, from west coast airports like SFO, much like how ANA deploys its three A380s to Hawaii. Because the flights are not for business customers, there isn’t really any pressure to leave multiple times a day – a single holidaymaker flight can suffice.
In terms of international routes, we might have seen a New York to Brazil flight. With a large business market and plenty of demand in good times, the link between these two cosmopolitan hubs could have been dominated by an A380 airline – either a US carrier or perhaps a Brazilian airline.
A last example might have been flights from Dallas to Sydney and Melbourne in Australia. Qantas operates the A380 from Texas to the country and makes a tidy sum, a video you can watch here, something that US carriers haven’t been able to take advantage of. The rest of the routes could be supplemented to rival other A380 carriers. We wouldn’t really see the A380 used for domestic flights, much like we never see the A380 used for domestic flights in Australia, France or the United Kingdom.
Definitely a fantastic scenario.
When the A380 arrived, the market was changing with US carriers slowly falling out of love with the Boeing 747. If Boeing, a home-grown US enterprise couldn’t get their carriers to buy the 747, then Airbus had less hope with its own A380.
A sign of the future …
And this is actually a sign of the future. The US carriers can’t really see themselves booking down for an aircraft seating over 400 passengers, let alone up to 600 or even 800 on an all-economy Airbus A380. All for different reasons, the result is the same. No airbus A380, and no large aircraft anymore.
And without that rich North American market snapping up aircraft, like we have seen with the Airbus A321XLR and Boeing 787, it is unlikely that any manufacturer will ever consider a large aircraft again, bringing in the end of the jumbo jet craze.
Which for myself personally, is a real shame.
Interestingly, you can take a quiz on this topic and find out how many questions you can answer correctly. It’s right here. Good luck!
Now you face a choice! Will you watch a video-story about the Airbus small plane problem, or would you like to check out the Boeing sonic cruiser’s story, an aircraft designed by Boeing to be a totally different plane for airlines against the Airbus A380s market entry? Make your choice and I’ll see you next time!