April 27, 2005, Toulouse-Blagnac. On the airport tarmac, a "monster" is about to take off for the first time. Its name: the A380. For this inaugural flight like no other, no less than 50,000 spectators made the trip, a sign of the importance of the event for Airbus and aviation lovers. On this day, the 500-ton “super jumbo” spends four hours in the air at low altitude, before returning to its hangar. A birth with a fanfare.
May 20, 2020. There are no more people, this time, to mourn the announcement of Air France: fifteen years after the launch of the prestigious model, the nine A380s of the French company are definitively nailed to the ground, with two and a half years ahead of the original schedule. The coronavirus will have been fatal to them, and many other carriers have already reduced the airfoil. An eco-class burial for the giant of the air. How did we get there? Back on a European saga that has become global.
"Symbol of what Europeans can do together"
The beginnings of the A380 date from the 1990s. The European manufacturer Airbus decides to launch a very large carrier capable of carrying at least 500 passengers. Globalization is booming, trade will continue to expand. In short, the future is by air, we think. And the big, very big models. "Airbus started with the bet that sky traffic would double every 15 or 20 years, until saturation," said aeronautical expert Xavier Tytelman.
The 73-meter-long and 80-meter-wide aircraft was finally developed in 2001. The different parts were built in many European countries, then assembled in Blagnac, on the outskirts of Toulouse. Orders start immediately. Emirates, Air France, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa… All the behemoths want their fleet. Each of the companies chooses the configuration of its aircraft and the distribution of the different classes of passengers, with a final capacity that rotates between 450 and 600 seats distributed over two levels. In the end, 251 planes were ordered by fourteen carriers in 20 years.
It was therefore on April 27, 2005 that the A380's inaugural flight took place. Not a cloud in the sky. On the ground, hundreds of motorhomes have been positioned for several days, as for a mountain stage of the Tour de France. The plane covers the 3500 meters of the “Concorde” runway, used by the supersonic 36 years ago. The next day, Jacques Chirac goes down to Toulouse from Paris. On the spot, the head of state touts a "symbol of what Europeans can do together".
Two and a half years later, on October 25, 2007, place on the first commercial flight. A Singapore Airlines aircraft flies from Singapore to Sydney in less than eight hours. On November 23, 2009, Air France in turn uncorked champagne. An A380 flies under a three-color banner between Paris Charles de Gaulle and New York. On board, more than 500 passengers are pampered. The plane, which can travel 15,000 km non-stop, is quieter than other smaller models. "There are even reservation applications to have the best possible chance of flying on an A380," smiles Xavier Tytelman.
The failed “hubs” bet
But the A380 will very quickly suffer the shock of a global economic crisis, already. Originally not sanitary, but speculative. The stock market crash of 2008 forced companies to put aside their investments. They had already been put off by the significant delays (eighteen months!) In the delivery of their first devices. There, they become much more cautious at the idea of putting on the table 395 million euros, the list price of the A380.
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The Airbus super-jumbo will have a hard time recovering. Especially since the manufacturer's bet to bet on "hubs", that is to say large airport platforms such as Paris, London, Frankfurt, Shanghai or New York, has failed. Instead, passengers prefer - when possible - "point to point", which means being able to go from one city to another without having to stop in a "hub". Suddenly, the Airbus A380 pays the reverse of its qualities. Because its imposing size forces it to land only in the largest airports that have specific facilities.
Customers also want to be able to choose between multiple time slots. However, the need for profitability makes it impossible to fly very large semi-empty carriers. “The A380 pays for its lack of flexibility. In my day, we had seven Paris-New York connections a day, because what interests passengers is to fly when they want during the day. But you can't put seven A380s a day! Recalls a former Air France pilot, now retired. The Boeing 747, "cousin" of the Airbus 380, also suffers.
New planes, with only two engines and able to transport fewer passengers, are now preferred. This is the case of the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350, for example. These jets also have the great advantage of being less polluting, while climate issues are becoming increasingly important in society. The “flygskam” - the shame of flying - which appeared after the Paris climate agreements in 2015, was then popularized by several ecological “figures” including Greta Thunberg.
On February 14, 2019, what more and more experts foresaw eventually happened: Airbus announces the final cessation of production of the A380. "Our order book is no longer enough to allow us to maintain it," explains the head of the aeronautical group, Tom Enders. The last deliveries are planned for 2021.
VIDEO. Airbus to stop producing the A380: end of an extraordinary aircraft
In the fall of 2019, Air France announces that its fleet of fourteen aircraft will no longer fly at the end of 2022. "With its four reactors, the A380 consumes 20% to 25% more fuel per seat than the new long-haul aircraft generation and emits more CO2, ”argues the company. A deadline precipitated by two and a half years due to the coronavirus, six months later.
"Engineer and passenger dream, commercial nightmare"
Because air traffic has been almost stopped since March, due to the spread of the virus and the containment measures taken week after week by many countries, in Asia, in Europe, then in America. The international air transport association anticipates a 55% drop in airline revenues in 2020 compared to 2019. Under these conditions, jumbo jets, which must carry hundreds of passengers at once to hope to be profitable, may find it most difficult to recover. How can we imagine a return to pre-crisis traffic in the coming years?
At Lufthansa, only seven of the fourteen A380s will fly again in the future, at best. British Airways and Australian Qantas are also cutting costs. Emirates, the most greedy company with 123 aircraft ordered in 20 years, could sell 46 of them by 2027. The company had already canceled the order of 39 models in 2019. The A380 is "finished" because of the pandemic, assassinated its president Tim Clark.
In the end, the A380 will still remain, at least for several decades, the largest airliner having transported passengers. "An engineer and passenger dream, but a commercial nightmare", as summed up by a former Air France employee.