To renew interest in its otherwise fledgling A380 program, Airbus announced an updated version of its double-deckered plane at the Paris Air Show today: the A380plus. Toting winglets that improve fuel burn by 4% and a redesigned cabin capable of holding 80 additional passengers (for a total of 960 in an all-economy configuration with 3-5-3 abreast), Airbus says that this new iteration of the superjumbo will reduce the cost per seat ratio by 13%. In an industry characterized by razor-thin profit margins, these refinements could make the difference of being in the black or in the red.
It remains to be seen whether or not this development will attract the attention of airlines though.
When the Airbus A380 first entered service nearly a decade ago, it was heralded as a game changer. Compared to the widebodies of the past, the A380 represented a huge upgrade over its loud, cramped, and relatively inefficient predecessors.
We’ve seen airlines introduce massive suites with double beds, on board showers, and refined lounges and bars for premium passengers. Even those sitting in economy class benefit from quieter, more spacious cabins.
But despite the new opportunities that the A380 offers, most airlines (other than Emirates) have responded tepidly at best. Only 17 carriers placed orders for the superjumbo, and of the 213 in service, Emirates flies almost half of them (95 are in service at the time of this posting). Airlines are instead opting for smaller planes with longer ranges, like the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350. While A380s can move unprecedented amounts of people, they’re actually too big to be profitable on the vast majority of long-haul international routes. It costs a lot to fly and maintain planes that size, and generating meaningful revenue is contingent on how many paying passengers are on board. Often times there just isn’t enough demand to make money on a flight. Comparatively, 787s and A350s are both cheaper to operate and, with fewer seats, easier to fill; these models are more lucrative.
Given that, I’d be surprised if the A380plus can reinvigorate the Superjumbo the way Airbus hopes it can. If industry trends continue to favor Boeing 787s and Airbus A350s, increased capacity is not going to be a selling point for major carriers. Perhaps the A380plus could make inroads among low-cost-carriers in high density markets like in Southeast Asia, but operation and maintenance costs might be too much to warrant capacity for nearly 1,000 passengers.
What do you think? Could the A380plus be the spark Airbus needs to increase orders?