Goodbye to the A380, the biggest passenger plane there ever was

It was just too large.
An Emirates A380. Airbus

The largest commercial passenger plane in the world, the A380, is a double-decker behemoth with four engines, a wingspan of 262 feet, and a cabin that can hold more than 500 people. It has enough space inside of it, Airbus says, to fit 35 million ping-pong balls, if you count its cargo hold along with its two main decks. It first left the ground in 2005, and on Valentine’s Day 2019, Airbus announced it would stop producing the aircraft. The last vessels will be delivered in 2021.

The official cause of death is a smaller-than-expected number of orders from Emirates Airlines, which is the largest operator of the craft—although it will still receive 14 new A380s between now and 2021.

“It’s a marvel of aviation to see an airplane that large, and that humans can make things that big fly,” reflected Richard Anderson, director of the Eagle Flight Research Center at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. By the standards of modern jets, the A380’s production lifespan—it first flew commercially in 2007—is short. The 747, in comparison, first flew in 1969 and Boeing still has orders to fill.

William Crossley, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University, says ultimately, aircraft makers and airlines are discovering what the “right size” of an airplane should be. He says the top end of the market “is probably the A350-size.” Airbus says customers have ordered more than 1,000 A350s, but the A380 has had a total of just 273 orders, according to the BBC. That’s a huge difference considering the A350 first flew commercially in 2015.

An A350 can hold between 325 to 366 seats. Other wide-body, two-engine planes hold a similar amount. A Boeing 777 can accommodate between 317 and 396 people, and Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner can seat between 242 and 330. All of those planes are big, but hold fewer people than the A380. (Boeing is even working on a next-gen 777 with fuel-efficient wings so long, they’ll need to fold at the tips to fit at the gate.)

Decades of air travel trends would indicate that cramming more people on an airplane would be more profitable. “If you could put 500 people on the airplane, then the cost per mile is low,” Crossley says. But if an airline can’t fill all those seats, then the plane’s size becomes a liability, not an asset.

An A380 at the Farnborough International Airshow in 2014. Airbus

It’s a point that Anderson makes, too. Consider the flexibility that comes with an airline flying two 787s instead of one A380 on a route, he says. If the airline doesn’t sell enough seats, “then you can peel an airplane off,” he says. “You can’t peel half of a 380 off.”

The A380 also has four engines, which is double that on aircraft like the A350 and Boeing 787. And fewer engines comes with its advantages. “All other things being equal, two very large engines will be more fuel efficient than four engines that make the same amount of thrust,” Anderson says. Modern jet engines are big enough, and reliable enough, that even if one fails, the plane can make it to an airport on one, making the redundancy of four fuel-thirsty engines unnecessary.

Maintenance is simpler, too. “It’s quicker to overhaul two engines than it is to overhaul four,” says Crossley.

The A380 is survived by, among other Airbus aircraft, the company’s A350s and A330s, which Emirates is ordering 30 and 40 of, respectively. “Passengers all over the world love to fly on this great aircraft,” the CEO of Airbus, Tom Enders, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is painful for us and the A380 communities worldwide. But, keep in mind that A380s will still roam the skies for many years to come and Airbus will of course continue to fully support the A380 operators.”