First things first; I am sick and tired of all the A380 hate. I get it; it’s not made by Boeing and doesn’t fit the U.S. major route network. Here’s the thing: that doesn’t make it a terrible aircraft and an absolute aviation sin.
I am tired of reading comments from people saying, “Since Delta never ordered it, it must be too big.” No one also wants to hear your comments about how the A380 only works for “government-subsidized airlines,” or, “how all the other airlines that operate it regret it.” I’m looking at you, Jeff Smisek.
There are two immediate things I’ve always thought were an issue with the A380…well, maybe two and a half. Things that I have wanted Airbus to fix for a while now. Let’s dive in…
Airbus A380 Fix Number One:
There is too much wing.
The A380-800 as we know it today was always designed to be the baby of the family. In the name of engineering, maintenance, and certification commonality, it was “over-winged” to meet the needs of any potential stretches that could fit within the 80m ICAO code-F parking space at any A380-compatible airport. Thing is, it was long suspected that both the A380 freighter (which was cancelled during the global financial crisis) and the undetermined-length stretched A380-900 would have a maximum take-off weight of 590,000kg (1.3 million pounds). This meant the A380’s wing chord was significantly beefed up to meet an additional 15,000kg demand that was never placed upon it.
An easy, but not cheap, solution: re-profile the wing. Cut the chord down to match the weight of the current needs of the ultra-long-haul A380 operators. Cutting the chord will change the span slightly, but changing the span means than rather than having old-style, but giant, wing-tip fences to fit within the Code-F box, you can add a modern A350-style sharklet.
These changes would not only save weight, they’d also reduce aerodynamic drag. Less aerodynamic drag equates to lower fuel burn. Lower fuel burn and less structural weight can lead to either lower unit cost, or longer range.
Even the older A380-842s operated by Qantas can operate Dallas-Ft. Worth to Sydney (with some payload restrictions). Now, imagine that route with no payload restriction?
This is not just about range. Reprofiling the wing and changing its tip device is about increasing payload and reducing operating cost.
It’s no wonder that Airbus has said that if their A380NEO arrives with an EIS of somewhere between 2020 and 2025, they will have done unspecified things to the wing. I suspect the above.
Airbus A380 Fix Number Two:
To stretch or not to stretch?
Believe it or not, I think the A380NEO needs a stretch option. Not an extremely technical and expensive A380NEO/R option that can match the range of today’s A380-800. No, not at all. But a 10-frame stretch with no max gross weight changes would be beautiful.
Steven Udvar-Hazy, CEO of Air Lease Corporation, suggested this back around 2007 when the A380 was being introduced into service. An A380-900NEO of that length would allow a 600 or more passenger capacity in even a four-class configuration. That’s a serious contender for hub-to-hub flying, and there are routes that can sustain this. London-Mideastern Hub-Sydney instantly springs to mind. Obviously, it would not be a huge seller, but it would more than pay for its development cost in orders.
Here’s where I think Airbus needs to do something a little different. Add at least a four frame stretch to the base model 800NEO. Range is not an issue for the current A380-800, but cargo capacity is. Extending the cargo hold forward or aft of the wingbox will make the airframe more competitive and the extra seats will lower unit cost.
Emirates, for instance, could configure a four-frame stretch 800NEO to seat 550, while still being able to fly Dubai-Los Angeles with full payload at a lower trip cost.
Even if there is an economic downturn between now and the EIS of the A380NEO between 2020 and 2025, that will not halt global economic growth and passenger demand for time immemorial there after. There needs to be more seats on this lighter NEO to get the unit cost down to either 777-9 levels or below. I think that it can be done.
Airbus A380 Fix Number Three:
Well, yes, of course. Airbus has said as much, and that it will be single-source.
How? Every oddly anti-Airbus person I know was cheering when the CEO of Rolls Royce said he didn’t see a market, nor wanted to spend a lot of money developing an engine for an A380NEO. Truth is, he never really said either.
If you actually read between the lines, he didn’t really say anything that would be construed as a comment other than, “If they are willing to pay, I guess?” A lovely and non-commital answer. Truth is, no one is going to do a 100% clean sheet engine until the major engine manufacturers can figure out how to scale geared turbofans to above ~30k pounds of thrust (let alone the 80k you would need to match the current max output of a Trent 900).
The best option for the sole-source engine would be something derived from the Rolls Royce Trent XWB. After all, the lowest-thrust Trent XWB slots nicely into the A380 thrust range as it is. With a new wing, it is less likely to need as much power on takeoff to hurl it into the air.
Though my dream would be a breakthrough in the Pratt & Whitney Purepower program that created an 80k pound geared turbofan. Can you imagine the saved fuel consumption? It would be amazing!
What Airline Would Take the A380NEO?
So who of the existing operators should buy this lighter, more efficient, and maybe larger A380?
Emirates, Etihad Airways, and Qatar Airways. By the time that the A380NEO EIS, they’ll need to replace their old A380-800s. Accounting for growth, that’s at least 200 frames right there. With Dubai World Central, hopefully, opening by then as Emirates’ super hub, Emirates could probably operate 200 on their own. Let’s look in more detail with each airline…
Qantas: With the Emirates tie-up to the east and the American Airlines (pending) joint-venture to the West, plus throw in some absurdly long flights where frequency is obliterated by crazy time differences, and you need something big to meet future demand. True, Qantas deferred their last A380 tranche, but deferred is not canceled. Rationalize the A380 to serve merely Dubai, London, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, and Dallas with not a frame to spare and it makes sense to replace them. Lower fuel burn, greater payload.
Lufthansa: Replacement, maybe expansion, but my bet would be on replacement. There is a place for the A380 at Lufthansa, but it will not be used for anything radical.
British Airways: Simple really, Heathrow is not going to get any less crowded, and by 2025, their original A380s are not going to get any younger.
Korean and Asiana: They are both in the same amazing transfer hub of Incheon. Their small fleets will need replacing, maybe even expansion. The Korean economy is hot and those two airlines are forming a nice bridge across the Pacific from the Americas into Korea, Northern China, and the Russian Far East.
Air France, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways International: I feel they all need help running an airline. By the time Malaysia Airlines relearns this art, they will have a new name and a regional niche.
Turkish: They do not have any yet, but they should. They’ll have a new super hub replacing the current manifestation IST. They have the end game of being a major connecting carrier, but they also deal extensively in passenger volume. Give them compelling operating economics, when they have an airport where they can fit their fleet at peak times, it’d be good for them. They could even fly it to their more popular European destinations on off-hours between long-haul flights.
Then you have China, which is a strange market. It’s growing ridiculously fast and its airports are starting to become the crowded ramp the A380 was designed for. As we all know, however, China has seemingly infinite money to spend on infrastructure. Crowded airport? Build another one! Just look at Beijing.
By 2025, it will have two giant international airports (Capital and Daxing). The state could either abandon the A380 in favor of filling its new super airports with hundreds of smaller twins, or just order dozens of A380NEOs and hundreds of twins — it will play out in a manner that befits the trade-surplus the central government wants to address.
Cathay Pacific: Hong Kong can only have so much land to park 777s around. Cathay Pacific has four flights a day to JFK, two of which arrive in New York within two hours of each other. Similar story for Los Angeles. They are not hurting on seat factors either. Now yes, the current A380 lacks the freight-train like capabilities that the 777-300ER can offer, but the NEO will offer lower unit cost as well as a more compelling belly-freight capacity. On top of this, frequency on ultra-long-haul flights works when fuel prices are low, but who is to say what a gallon of Jet-A will cost in 2025. As much as the airline dislikes the current A380, the NEO is a different beast. The 777-9 serves a great purpose, slight expansion in capacity on current 777 routes, but it does not solve the problems of crowded airspace and even-more-crowded airports.
Realistically, by the time the A380NEO enters into service, the global economy will be a completely different landscape. More people are going to be flying than ever, and airlines that make no sense as operators right now could easily grow into them.