10 Fun Facts About the Airbus A380
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Ah, the Airbus A380. We can talk all day about whether it’s a beauty or an ungainly giant, but one fact is indisputable: It’s the largest passenger aircraft ever made. If you’ve ever flown on one, you’ll know that if offers an incredibly smooth ride and lots of room; and if you’ve ever seen one take off, you’ll know that it’s an exceptionally quiet airplane. But the end is near for the plane sometimes known as the flying whale.
It’s never been a commercial success, and Airbus decided this year to end production in 2021. Big twin-engine jets like the Boeing 777 and Airbus’ own A350, which can carry almost as many passengers but with far lower costs, effectively killed the big four-engined beast. It’s the same fate that hit the Boeing 747.
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It’s expected that about 250 Airbus A380s will have been made by the time production ends, assuming all current orders are filled. But regardless of commercial success, we at TPG have a soft spot for the A380 — it’s the favorite airplane of The Points Guy himself, after all.
Why are we so fond if it? After reading about these 10 facts that make the 380 stand out, you’ll see.
It’s really, really big
The A380 has a maximum takeoff weight of almost 1.3 million pounds — as much as seven Boeing 737-800s, or 30 percent more than the biggest 747 model. It’s the only airplane with a full-length upper deck. It can carry up to 600 gallons of water, feeding the onboard showers as well as the standard bathrooms and galleys. Its maximum fuel capacity is over 85,000 gallons, or about the same as 5,300 Toyota Camrys.
But in one aspect, the 747 has it beat: it’s still the longest passenger airplane in the world, at 250 feet versus 238.
Building it almost proved too much for Airbus
A380s are built in Toulouse, France, but their parts come from all over Europe (and beyond: today’s commercial jets are truly globalized products).
The wings and Rolls-Royce engines are made in the UK, the fuselage in Germany as well as France, the horizontal tail plane in Spain — all of this comes together by ship and truck, and assembled within painstakingly designed and enforced tolerance parameters. Just like Boeing does. So it was a shock to Airbus engineers when they were getting ready to put together the first A380 in 2005 and the pieces didn’t fit. Or rather: the wires designed by the German unit of the company were too short to meet the connectors in the fuselage section built in France. Before joining the parts, they had to redesign the wiring, all 330 miles of it. (You read that right: 330 miles.)
That snafu took months to fix and cost the company billions. In hindsight, it may have been a sign that luck was not with the giant. Or just that large, multinational industrial processes are extremely complicated, especially for a company that had never done anything on that scale before.
Emirates bought almost half of all A380s
When production of the A380 finally did get underway and customers began flying it — starting with Singapore Airlines in 2007 — Airbus was confident that orders would pour in. But that never happened. Only Emirates really loved the big jet, so much so that it has bought 40% of all A380s made. The airline’s boss, Sir Tim Clark, was famously a great proponent of the A380; in 2017, when the program had not been cancelled yet, he told TPG that more airlines should buy it. None did.
It costs half a billion dollars a pop
And what if someone did want to buy an A380? How much money would one have to shell out to take home the biggest aircraft you can buy today?
A new A380 costs almost half a billion dollars. More precisely, according to the list prices published by Airbus, $445.6 million. But airlines almost never pay full price; negotiations for commercial-jet purchases are long and complex, and discounts are always part of large orders. In fact, many airlines don’t even buy their planes, but lease them.
There were going to be cargo and VIP A380s
One of the very few people in the world with enough money to buy an A380 as a private jet almost did. Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia —the owner of significant chunks of Citigroup, Twitter and Lyft — signed an order to buy an A380 at the Dubai Air Show in 2007. He later decided not to take it, preferring instead to continue using his 747. To this day, no A380s are used as VIP jets.
There was also going to be a cargo version of the A380, but it never got built after FedEx cancelled its order. The only place where you’ll ever find cargo A380s is Ebay, where desktop-model replicas can get really expensive.
It can have more than 600 seats
No wonder that the A380 should have the biggest seating capacity of any airliner that ever flew.
Seat counts range dramatically among airlines that operate it, ranging from a low of 379 seats on some Singapore configurations to 615 on the high-density layout that Emirates flies on some routes. Those 615 seats are the undisputed world record for most people ever on a passenger airplane. (The record for most people ever on a plane belongs to El Al. During a 1991 rescue operation carrying Ethiopian Jews to Israel, a cargo 747 was crammed with more than 1,000 people.)
It’s the only plane with a shower
If you want to take a shower in flight and you don’t own a very large private jet, your only choice is the A380, flying first class on Emirates or Etihad. And what if you want your personal butler on a plane? Only the A380 offers that, to passengers who have a lot of money (or a savvy strategy to use their points), in the ultra-first class known as The Residence aboard Etihad.
On the other hand, to experience the famous onboard bar on Emirates, you just need a ticket in business or first class.
It can fly for 17 hours, or just one
You will have plenty of time to enjoy that bar on the fourth-longest nonstop flight in the world, Emirates’ Auckland-to-Dubai route, the longest A380 flight currently scheduled. It spends on average about 17 hours in the air.
As for the shortest A380 flight, it’s just one hour from Dubai to Muscat, Oman, also on Emirates. Which of course we had to review, because we really are A380 buffs.
It’s flown with joysticks
What is that thing to the left of TPG senior writer JT Genter — obviously very happy to be sitting in an A380 captain’s seat — that looks like a video game joystick? It is indeed a joystick — the trademark of every Airbus except the early A300 and A310.
Boeings have traditional yokes, but Airbus has dispensed with those since the 1980s, when it introduced the A320, the first airliner using fly-by-wire. That means pilots send their inputs to a computer, which then moves the plane’s control surfaces. On Airbuses, they do so using those joysticks — or sidesticks, as pilots call them.
It has no successors
Sometime in the 2030s, likely, the last revenue flight of an A380 will touch down. What will take its place? In short: nothing. No plane currently being designed matches its size or capabilities.
After 2021, the new holder of the title for largest passenger airplane in the world will be… well, the same as the old one. The Boeing 747 will become again the biggest guy around. But that’s a bit of a fiction: Boeing has not formally closed down the assembly line for the current 747-8 passenger model, but that doesn’t mean that anyone’s actually buying it. The fabled Queen of the Skies is just as dead, commercially, as its would-be European rival. If you consider airplanes that are actually being produced and sold, not just offered in a sales brochure, then the biggest one in the post-A380 era will be the Boeing 777-9. That is a beautiful airplane, but it is made to be practical and efficient, not an opulent flying palace.
Onboard showers and Etihad‘s unique The Residence will die with the A380. Good thing we have an article telling you about the best ways to use your points and miles to cross the oceans in that unique, exceptional machine.
Featured photo by Nicky Kelvin/TPG