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Airbus A380: A Love Letter to the Double-Decker Plane Destined for Oblivion

No present-day plane can compete with the Airbus A380 for passenger passion. We adore the double-decker.

For another airliner that has aroused anything like the same adulation, you must reach back to Concorde. Which, I contend, demonstrates that the more passengers love an aircraft, the less it appeals to airline accountants – and, by extension, the people who order planes.

I have been covering the “SuperJumbo” since it was a drawing-board project called the A3XX. As the design took shape, the marketing team chose to award it the same designation as the Torquay bypass.

The first A380 I saw (not counting the trunk road that loops west under Torbay) was, rather appropriately, flying over the super-jumbo-sized municipal swimming pool in Toulouse. I floated, mesmerised, as the giant aircraft floated overhead on an early test flight from the nearby Airbus factory. Ever since I have been looking optimistically skywards to see if I can spot the implausible bulk of the four-engined monster.

More even than the Boeing 747, there is an enduring sense of wonder that such a vast machine can get off the ground, let alone carry 500 people from one side of the world to the other – safely and comfortably. Concorde once had similar cachet.

The A380 is even better to fly in than it is to look at, at least relative to economy class on other aircraft. When I conducted a Twitter poll for the favourite aircraft for an overnight 10-hour flight in economy, the SuperJumbo was rated way ahead of the competition – even against its much more modern sibling, the A350, and the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner”.

Having flown on a range of A380s, the difference is clear. British Airways and Singapore Airlines have an economy section at the back of the upper deck, configured eight-abreast and bestowed with an air of quiet calm – feeling rather like premium economy but without the premium. Even on the main deck, there is a generous sense of space.

While the A380’s main deck cabin is wide enough for 11 seats abreast, no airline has installed more than 10 across. Contrast that with the long-haul workhorse, the Boeing 777 – which began in a nine-abreast configuration but now has a default of 10 across.

The worst long-haul flight I have experienced was on an Air France 777 into which no fewer than 468 passengers had been crammed – just one seat fewer than the capacity British Airways offers on its A380.

No wonder the dull, cramped Boeing twin-jet has outsold the spacious SuperJumbo by six to one: the economics are far better. Passengers prefer the A380, but the premium we are prepared to pay collectively is not enough to support its ownership and running costs.

Next weekend, I am flying via the Gulf to India. Emirates, offering A380 comfort via Dubai, was priced £80 higher than Gulf Air via Bahrain. I bought the latter.

The A380 would be even more of a financial basket case were it not for the bold decision by Emirates to buy up half the world’s supply of SuperJumbo jets. Moving people 500 or 600 at a time through Dubai works for a surprisingly wide range of routes (when the A380 first took to the skies, I bet the bosses of Birmingham and Glasgow airports weren’t expecting to welcome daily arrivals and departures).

But in downsizing its plane order to smaller single-deck Airbuses, Emirates is drawing attention to the Achilles heel of the A380: there are simply not enough routes where so many empty seats can reliably be filled.

Airbus was betting that the A380 would come good. As hub airports become ever more congested, the theory went, orders would pick up. But I imagine the firm is glad that it can stop running a loss-making production line within a couple of years.

If you have not yet enjoyed flying aboard the plane, don’t fret. “Peak A380” will occur with the final delivery in 2021. After that the numbers will start to dwindle, but Emirates will still be filling the planes a decade later. And who knows: as the SuperJumbo acquires some rarity value, perhaps we will be willing to pay more to keep the amazing Airbus aloft for many more years.

This article was written by Simon Calder @SimonCalder, Travel Correspondent, The Independent in February 2019