Many people will mourn the A380 jumbo jet, whose demise Airbus announced today. Perhaps none more than the residents of Lévignac, who rush to their windows and line the sidewalks when six articulated trucks, carrying the wings, fuselage, and other bits of the aircraft squeeze through the quaint French town on their way to Airbus’ assembly plant in nearby Toulouse.
For most of its planes, Airbus moves such parts, which come from its plants in France, Germany, Spain, and the UK, by transport plane. The elements of the A380, though, are too big even for the whale-inspired Beluga. Instead, they move by sea and by river, a journey that Airbus calls the Oversize Transport Itinerary. And the streets of Lévignac are so narrow that getting those trucks through the town required a feasibility study by Airbus and the French government. It even produced a study called “Trailer truck trajectory optimization: the transportation of components for the Airbus A380.” That’s just to build the thing—actually flying it required rejiggering airport infrastructure. Getting people onto and off the plane requires dual boarding bridges (going to different levels). Some airports would have to widen taxiways; most would have to move signage around.
All of which is to say, the A380 has always been a complicated machine, a feat of engineering, aeronautical as well as logistical. That’s because everything about the plane is huge. The double decker is 238.5 feet long and 262 feet from wingtip to wingtip. It’s seven stories tall. If you overlaid the A320 on the A380, the smaller plane’s tail just reaches to the jumbo’s wings. It contains 4 million parts and 220 cabin windows. In its standard 3-class configuration, it seats 517 people. You can fit 11 people in a single row. It is, as we said nearly a decade ago, awesome.
Awesome, however, does not mean successful. The plane’s sales figures were as dismal as its specs are impressive. In 2015, Airbus took orders for just two A380s. In 2016, it took none. In 2017, it took none.
That’s because the A380 was designed for a hub-and-spoke network, in which it would move huge numbers of passengers between major airports. And that’s not what we have now, says Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group. The global aviation system is growing 5 percent year over year, allowing for more point-to-point travel. You don’t need to move 600 people from LA to London, then have them take shorter flights from there. You can send 200 to Lisbon, 200 to Florence, 200 to Prague. “It was a very backward-looking concept,” Aboulafia says. “It was 10 years too late.”
And now it’s dead—Airbus will build the final two planes in 2021. So maybe, to mark the passing of the age of the super jumbo, the men, women, and children of Lévignac will stand in the street to witness the last convoy, carrying a plane that’s both beauty and beast, and sing:
‘Cause it really is a funny plane
A beauty but a funny plane
It really is a funny plane