Goodbye, Double Deckers…
On 22 July 2020, the last Qantas Boeing B747 retired from service, leaving the airline’s kangaroo logo in the sky. Meanwhile, media reports state that Boeing intends to end B747 production in 2022, closing its half-a-century history of production. The production of the other double decker, Airbus A380, is said to end by 2021, although it’s been only 13 years since A380 went into service. Both being double deckers, why could B747 stay in the market for such a long time? Why couldn’t A380 be as popular as B747 among airlines? Today’s infographic shows the timeline how the double deckers have come into the market and why they are leaving the industry these days.
The American Jumbo vs the European Superjumbo
After World War II, the commercial airline industry started growing rapidly, converting ex-military aircraft into passenger aircraft. In the 1950s, the flight was glamourous, not only in terms of the price, but also in terms of the service. The passenger would enjoy endless champaign and brandy and buffet style meals. In the 1960s, the US was at the core of the market: the Boeing B707 and the Douglas DC-8 dominated the passenger aircraft market. They both were narrow-body planes, with a capacity up to 189 for B707 and 269 for DC-8.
Between 1950 and 1970, global air passenger traffic increased by over 10% per year. Simply, flying bigger aircraft would have been more efficient both for passengers and cargo. In 1970, Boeing B747 a long-range, wide-body airliner, was introduced by Pan American World Airways. It made a great hit. The air travel trend at the time legitimated the use of the “Jumbo”: Hub-and-spoke networks became more common after the US Airline Deregulation Act in 1978. A hub is a central airport, where passengers take connecting flights to spokes, or destinations. Along with B747, DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011, wide-body aircraft, started flying in 1970s.
Needless to say, both Boeing and Douglas Aircraft Company are American companies. So, where was Europe in the aircraft industry at that time? Europe had several prominent aircraft manufacturers before WW II, such as Dutch Fokker and Swedish Saab. However, America was dominant in the market around 1960s. Europe felt cornered, so they made a multinational aviation company in 1970 – Airbus. Airbus launched a wide-body airliner A300 in 1972 to compete against DC-10 and L-1011. A300 and its successor A310 didn’t do so well throughout the 1970s to 1980s. In 1988, Airbus took different path and launched a narrow-body, A320. It sold well. Now, Airbus wanted to take a challenge; they decided to launch a “Superjumbo” to compete with the American Jumbo, which was the only double decker in the market at the time.
A380: Wow! But Was It the Right Time?
After several delays, Airbus A380 was finally introduced by Singapore Airlines in 2007. The largest full-length double decker certainly wowed people. If you saw them at the airport, you would be amazed how technology had advanced to make such a huge thing fly up in the sky. Despite its gorgeous looks, A380 didn’t sell well; in fact, it was a complete failure in terms of its sales. The number of orders is only 251 as of 2020, with almost half ordered by Emirates. There are only 15 operators in the world, all passenger airlines and no cargo. The figures for B747 are 1,571 and 73, respectively.
Why didn’t A380 gain popularity as much as B747? Probably, the primary reason is that because it wasn’t the right time to launch such a magnificent plane in the 2000s. The 2000s saw several unexpected and unfavorable events: The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 – 1999, the 9/11 Attack in 2001, and the Global Financial Crisis in 2007 – 2008, followed by oil price surge. The airline industry may not have had the capacity to afford such gigantic costs. The change in travelling trends would have played a role. Thanks to the development of technology, new fuel-efficient aircraft have come to the market, such as B787 and A350. This means that airlines now can operate efficiently even by flying point-to-point routes. Passengers no longer look for elegance and luxury in air travel, so low-cost airlines have become more popular. Passengers also prefer flying directly to the destination to waiting at a hub for hours and connecting flights. So, the Superjumbo had no bright future. Sadly enough, Airbus announced to cease A380 production by next year. What’s worse is that no one wants to buy the second-hand A380. Unlike the popular Jumbo, no cargo wants to use Superjumbo, even for second-hand thanks to its inconvenient design. The retired A380 has already been scrapped, which was the first A380 flown by Singapore Airlines. We might not be able to see the grand view in coming decade or so, because its main customer, Emirates, is famous for retiring its fleet in a relatively short period of years.
Being at right place at the right time
What is interesting to note is that B747 was launched with the view that it won’t last long enough as the future of aviation at the time of its development was thought to be the supersonic planes like Concorde. With this view, Boeing designed B747 to be cargo-friendly (with the nose opening and the pilots’ cabin at the top) as they wanted it to be of some use on the cargo side once passenger demand goes down. A380, on the other hand, was designed anticipating superjumbos to be the future of aviation. Airbus was not too wrong at the time of starting the project in the early 90s. It is the unanticipated set of events that happened after Airbus gone into the project that made A380 a failure despite being a superior product.
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