Aerospace & Defense

Did Boeing Outsmart Airbus on Super-Jumbo Planes?

Airbus A380 Emirates
Source: Emirates
The double-decked, four-engine A380 from Airbus is the largest plane in the air. It is also the most economical to operate, provided a carrier can fill its 525 to 823 seats. So why can’t Airbus sell them?

There is essentially one key customer for the plane, Dubai-based Emirates, which has taken delivery of 59 of the planes and has an order in for 81 more. Airbus has written a total of 317 orders for the super-jumbo jet through the end of March and delivered 156 since the aircraft was introduced in 2005. Airbus delivered two A380s in March.

However, Airbus has not taken a new order for the plane since 2013, and Airbus’s CEO said earlier this month that the plane may have been launched 10 years too early. Maybe — or maybe not.

Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) owned the jumbo jet market for decades with its 747. But the U.S. company has begun to cut production from around 2.0 per month in 2013 to about 1.3 per month by next year. Boeing did not take a new order for the passenger version of the 747 in all of 2014 and has not taken one to date this year. The company wrote orders for two new 747-8F freighters in 2014 and an order for three of the freighters in February of this year.

Part of the reason for the lack of airline interest in the huge planes is the belief, probably created by the aircraft makers themselves, that the new, more fuel-efficient dual-engine, wide-body planes like the 787 and the A350 are more economical to operate than four-engine planes like the 747 and the A380. The analysts at Leeham News and Comment, however, say that the A380 is “the most economical aircraft one can operate if one can fill it to normal load factors.”

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According to Air Transport World, the highest load factor for the first three months of 2015 was 86.8%, and the 25th best was 78.7%. For the sake of argument then, let’s say a load factor of around 80% is “average.” Using 80% of an A380’s capacity range, we get a capacity range of 420 to around 650. The A380 has a flight range of 8,200 nautical miles (nm).