Designing and selling a
successor to the 747 proved to be a very challenging process;
with Boeing in particular not wanting to lose its current
dominant position with the 747 and unwilling to invest the huge
costs involved at a time when the 747 had no competitors.
'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' seemed to be Boeing's
Airbus, on the other hand,
needed to develop a competitor to the 747 so as to give it a
complete product range of airplane types.
The different business
situations of Boeing and Airbus caused Boeing to defer a 747
replacement, while driving Airbus to develop one.
Boeing's Various Plans for
Successors to the 747
Boeing toyed with the idea
of a completely newly designed successor to the 747, which it
termed the NLA - the 'New Large Airplane' - in the early 1990s.
This was proposed to have a passenger capacity of 606
passengers, but Boeing ended up discontinuing development of the
concept, preferring instead to pursue less costly (and, it
felt, less risky) further enhancements to its existing 747
Boeing publicly considered
several new versions of the 747. In 1996 Boeing announced
new 747-500X and 747-600X designs, and a more tentative
747-700X. The -500X would have been a longer range plane
(462 passengers up to 10,000 miles) and the -600X a higher
capacity plane (548 passengers up to 8900 miles), both being simple
extensions of the 747 design. The -700X was more fanciful
with a wider fuselage and capable of carrying up to 650
These plans came to nothing,
and in 2000 Boeing announced a 747X as a counter to Airbus'
first announced plans for a super jumbo, then designated the
A3XX. Both planes were specified
as having a 550 seat capacity, but after a year of
unsuccessfully trying to find any airline that would order the
proposed stretched 747 design (while Airbus had already obtained
orders for 66 A380 planes), Boeing abandoned the concept,
choosing instead to misdirect its energies towards its short
lived and ill fated 'Sonic Cruiser' concept (a plane that was to
fly slightly faster than previous jets, but still slower than
the speed of sound) and was silent on the concept of any further
extension of its 747 for several years.
Note also our
five part series on the history of
Boeing then contented itself
to a role on the sidelines as an A380 naysayer, claiming the
plane would never be successful - a claim that looked
increasingly far-fetched as Airbus continued to rack up more and
more orders for its A380. And so, in late 2005, Boeing was
forced to change its position, and it instead said that a bigger
than 747-400 plane was needed, but not one as big as an A380 - a
fairly untenable statement to make due to the fine shade of
difference between a bigger than 747-400 and a regular A380
Boeing's new 747-8
Boeing accordingly announced
its plans for yet another updated 747, named the 747-8.
This should have more sensibly been called the 747-500 but
Boeing by this time had now fully entered its ridiculous phase
of including the number 8 wherever possible in any airplane
designation in the hope it would help boost sales of the plane
to China, due to the good luck ascribed to number 8 by the
The 747-8 is simply a stretched
version of the 747, adding 19' to its length, and making
it the world's longest (but not largest) passenger airplane.
This stretch will add potentially 51 more seats to the plane.
The 747-8 is also to have long range (about 8800 miles, more
than any previous 747, other than for the oddball and
In the almost three years
since announcing the new plane, Boeing has had only one sale of
the 747-8. This was a sale of 20 747-8s to
Lufthansa (which has also purchased A380s from Airbus), and the first planes are currently expected to start
commercial service in 2010.
This is a disappointing level
of sales, although Boeing has enjoyed much greater success with
the freighter version of the plane, having received 78 orders
through the end of 2007. The 747's design and origins have
always been very strongly influenced by freight carrying issues,
and exactly as anticipated in the original design of the 747,
when the plane's appeal as a passenger transport reduces, it
still remains a firm favorite of freight companies.
Amusingly, it was first
anticipated, back in the 1960s, that the 747 would be replaced
by a supersonic passenger jet within a decade or so, what was
briefly termed the 2707. This of course has never
A piece of trivia - why the
747 has an upper deck
Interestingly, the upper
deck on the 747 wasn't developed with the prime intention of
providing more seating. Rather it was due to the 747's
cargo plane origins, and the desire to allow direct loading into
the front of the plane by way of lifting up its nose.
This meant the cockpit was
innovatively designed to be above the main deck in the 'hump'
and it was only subsequently that the hump was extended and made
into extra passenger seating.
The short length of this
hump initially, and then its subsequent extension, was a
tantalizing hint of the future of very large sized airplanes -
it begged the question 'Why not make it a complete second
level?' - a question that has only now been answered by Airbus.
Other Manufacturers and Their
McDonnell Douglas had also
looked at a successor to its MD11 that would be larger than a
747, and had developed a concept plane, the MD12, that was to be
a double decked plane, and with four engines rather than the
three on the MD11 and DC10.
This was first offered to
airlines in 1991, then evolved into a new form in 1992 that
would have had its first flight in 1995 and first commercial
flight in 1997, but it did not get any orders and was cancelled.
In 1996, McDonnell Douglas
offered a new plane, the MD-XX, an MD-11 derivative that wasn't
as large as the MD12. No interest was received, and the
company cancelled the project later in 1996.
Boeing/Airbus Joint Venture
An industry joint venture of
sorts was formed in January 1993, comprising Boeing and
several of the companies that were members of the Airbus
consortium, with the objective being to pool resources to create
a new super-jumbo, the belief being that while there was enough
potential market demand for one super-jumbo, there was
insufficient market demand to support two competing planes.
This joint venture coined
the term VLCT to refer to its idea of a 'Very Large Commercial
Transport'. It worked on the concept until April 1995 when
it was abandoned.
With this as the marketplace
background, we can now understand Airbus and what it was doing.
Development of the Airbus A380
Airbus was (and still is) an
aggressive and fast growing airplane manufacturer, and was
quickly expanding its product range. Its first plane, the
A300, was a mid-sized medium range plane, good for
intra-European flights, and first flew in 1974.
The company then added
smaller planes (the A310 and A320 series, with models of each
series first flying in 1983 and 1988) and then larger planes
(the A330 and A340, with first flights occurring in 1994 and
1993). By the time the A330 and A340 were in production
Airbus arguably had planes to match Boeing's planes across the
board in all categories except for the 747 category.
Unsurprisingly, Airbus now
focused on coming up with a plane to compete with the 747, and
recognizing that the 747 in its present form was no longer
significantly different or better than newer planes that were
almost as big and often cheaper to operate, it decided to
develop a bigger and better plane, rather than a direct 747
This concept was first
announced at the Paris Air Show in 1991, when Airbus revealed
vague plans for developing a 600 - 700 seat super jumbo jet.
This concept went through various interesting variations,
including one which proposed two A340 fuselages joined together,
side by side.
Airbus then participated in
the VLCT study with Boeing with a view to possibly jointly
developing a 747 successor, while continuing its own development
work on a plane of its own. Airbus was seeking to have its
cake and eat it too.
The joint venture concept failed, with
Boeing ostensibly deciding the risk associated with developing a
747 successor was too great, and Airbus deciding the greater
risk would be in not developing a 747 successor (and thereby
leaving the top end of the market exclusively with Boeing).
Airbus also perceived that Boeing may have been using the VLCT
study as a way to slow down its own direct development of the
A380 (then referred to as the A3XX).
Airbus continued to develop
its A3XX plan, and Boeing took an on-again/off-again approach to
trying to compete against it. However, by the end of 2000,
Airbus had firm orders for its A3XX and Boeing had no orders for
its 747X concept, and so the Airbus board committed to proceed
with the A3XX project, now named the A380 and Boeing, yet again,
stepped back from pursuing a new enlarged improved 747
The first A380 took to the
air on 27 April 2005, and after some unfortunate delays, the
first customer plane was delivered to Singapore Airlines on 15
October 2007, operating its first flight (between Singapore and
Sydney) on 25 October.
The production delays
stemmed in large part from the organizational challenges inside
Airbus. It is a combination of formerly independent
airplane manufacturers in different European countries, and the
merger of the different companies and their different design
processes resulted in some of the designs done in France not
equating to the supposedly matching designs done in Germany.
Wiring in particular proved particularly intractable to resolve,
and the first production planes have had to be essentially
rewired by hand.
Production has therefore been slow to
date, but continues to increase as the underlying design issues
are resolved. One plane was delivered
in 2007, 12 will be delivered by the end of 2008, and 21 more in
2009, with a hope to get deliveries up to an impressive annual rate of 40 a
year in 2010.
experience with the A380 - it has operated over 100 commercial
A380 flights at the time of writing this in August 08 - has been extremely positive to date,
with the airplane proving to be outstandingly reliable in
service and enjoying close to a 100% uptime record. The
plane's fuel economy targets have reportedly been met and even
The development cost of the
A380 has massively increased beyond the initial estimates (of
$10 - 12 billion), and is currently
estimated by various sources as being in the order of $18
Airbus had earlier
anticipated that the project would break even after selling
about 200 A380s, but now will only admit that the break even
figure is in excess of 400 plane sales. The reason that
the break-even point has more than doubled, even though the
total development costs have 'only' increased by about 50% is
due to extra production costs per plane sold, greater than
anticipated discounting, compensation paid to airlines for
delivery delays, and losses due to exchange rate changes (the
planes are priced in US dollars which have been weakening, while
the manufacturing costs are mainly in Euros, which have been
The list price of an A380 is
in the realm of $320 million (depending on options), but actual
negotiated prices are substantially less than this, perhaps
sometimes even dropping below $200 million (ie up to a 40%
As expensive as the A380 is,
one plane has already been sold to a private individual, Prince
Al-Waleed bin Talal, the billionaire investor dubbed the Saudi
Arabian Warren Buffett, to be made into a 'flying palace'.
Airbus projects selling as many as 30 A380s as flying palaces,
variously to wealthy individuals and national governments.
As the A380 becomes more
widely accepted and consolidates its position as a bona fide
large airplane successor to the 747, it is probable that Airbus
will not need to discount as heavily as it has done to date to
buy business for the A380 program.
A380 - lower costs to airlines
but probably not to you
Depending on how you cost
out the claim, the A380 probably costs an airline about 15% -
20% less to operate than a 747.
This simple statement needs
a lot of detail to be made more exact, because operating costs
vary enormously, and depending on what is included into
operating costs also can change the equation.
For example, a plane flying
a short distance will have a greater operating cost, per mile
flown, that a plane flying a long distance.
Operating costs may
variously include airplane depreciation or not, and if it does
include this, a new plane might have higher depreciation costs
than an old plane making it seem like it has higher operating
costs, but in both cases, the costs are 'semi-fixed' (ie they
vary only slightly whether the plane is flown or left on the
ground) and arguably should perhaps not be included. Plus
is it a fair comparison to compare the minimal depreciation on a
20 yr old plane against the high depreciation on a brand new
And so on and so on - these
are all things that accountants love to discuss, and hence the
imprecision in establishing exactly how much difference in
operating cost there is between an A380 and a 747 (or other
But, whatever this
difference is, it does exist, and will save airlines money.
Just to take some numbers
wildly at random, let's say the operating costs on a 747 are 8c
per passenger mile; and let's say an A380 has a 15% lower cost -
ie, 6.8c a mile. This means that on a 5000 mile flight
across the Atlantic, an airline can save $60 per passenger each
way, or $120 roundtrip. That's a lot of money, and on a
490 seat A380, that is $58,800 extra revenue per roundtrip.
If we say the airline can operate the plane on six roundtrips a
week, that is $18 million in extra profit the plane can generate
So how much of this $120
saving are you likely to see reflected in the price you pay for
your ticket? Is it likely airlines will start charging
lower fares for A380 flights compared to flights on other
Alas, the answer, at least
short term, is 'nothing' and 'no'.
But, longer term, we can
expect that the lower costs of the A380 will help airlines to
keep their fare increases down and eventually the lower cost of
the A380 will become a shared benefit between them and us.
Part 2 of a four part
series on the Airbus A380 - please
Airbus A380 antecedents
Differing plans for a 747 successor
A380 completion, configuration, and controversy
Inside an Emirates A380
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8 August 2008, last update
28 May 2011
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