First-class cabin on the Airbus A-380, photograph by Gregory Bedenko

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/u/NotSafeForEarth, without meaning to be disrespectful, I think this comment is extremely misleading. At best, it’s a one-sided perspective on a very complicated issue; at worst, it’s deliberately withholding information in an effort to make the U.S. and Boeing look like the bad guys to Airbus’ good guy. I feel that’s an irresponsible and simplistic way to approach this, and I also think you’ve unintentionally made Airbus look like it had very foolish expectations of the U.S. market, which it never actually had.

>Basically Boeing dropped the ball somewhat, and so for various reasons a situation arose where two suitable engines existed, or were under development, and Airbus went ahead and did what Boeing didn’t: Build the Super-Jumbo. But what Boeing lacked in plane development, they more than made up for in PR, K St. lobbying and plain old fighting dirty, American-style.

This is emphatically wrong. Boeing made a deliberate decision not to dump a new entry on the VLA market, and while it remains to be seen whether they were correct do so, we would be lying to claim that their decision to prioritize 787 development over a new jumbo jet was made without having done a lot of research beforehand.

Boeing was in the VLA (Very Large Aircraft) market for decades before the A380 even existed (as you point out, the 747 was the only game in town for a long time), and they were the first to notice that VLA market growth didn’t seem to mirror the otherwise explosive growth in the number of passengers around the world. This defied all wisdom concerning the airline business model. You’d think that millions of new passengers would result in airlines everywhere demanding new jumbos in order to accommodate them, but the VLA market never expanded to anywhere near the degree anticipated. Airlines were more interested in 767s and 777s and their Airbus equivalents.

So Boeing does some market research and consults its customers, and it comes to the following conclusions:

– **The hub-and-spoke system that works so well for routing freight and packages is a real pain in the ass for passengers.** Your Amazon package doesn’t give a shit if it gets routed through Tennessee or Utah on its way to Chicago. Passengers, by contrast, care a lot about being yanked around more than they have to be, and there is a definite limit to their tolerance for multi-stop flights. Airlines also care because it’s easier to lose luggage on multi-stop flights and because you have to fuel and supply more aircraft. VLAs are “hub-to-hub” aircraft and make little sense for “spoke-to-spoke” travel.
– **Passengers and airports also don’t like the huge rush of people suddenly competing for services when a VLA takes off or lands.** There is not a soul on the planet who likes trying to get through immigration or customs within 30 minutes after a 747 arrives somewhere, and the A380 is even worse. This is the criticism that VLAs have attracted the most over the years and it’s an accurate one. Screening hundreds of passengers for a single flight efficiently is expensive and space-intensive.
– **NASA is probably right.** NASA had done a study while Boeing was developing the 777, proposing an alternative air traffic control system that emphasized more point-to-point connections. This would require a more advanced flight traffic control system to be programmed, but could cut down on aircraft emissions and fuel usage if properly implemented.
– **In an age with more expensive jet fuel and carriers having to nickel-and-dime everything to make profits, a VLA is particularly sensitive to fluctuations in demand.** VLAs already have some disadvantages in comparison to smaller aircraft: They can’t use as many airports, they’re incredibly heavy even when unloaded, and they gulp fuel no matter what you do. All of these problems are accentuated when point-to-point travel becomes more popular. Every seat you don’t fill on a plane is lost revenue, but every seat you don’t fill on a very big, very heavy, four-engined gas-guzzling plane with limited landing sites is a catastrophe. VLAs are inherently less flexible options for an airline.

Boeing decided to pursue the 787 in a gamble that the plane would fill the emerging niche for point-to-point long-range travel between both medium and large cities, and — wherever that market didn’t yet exist — they hoped to create it with a more economically efficient plane.They weren’t going to stop offering the 747 (and indeed the 747-8 cannibalized a lot of the research that went into the 787), but they also weren’t going to pursue a market that they thought had limited growth potential.

Airbus went for the A380 because they didn’t have a VLA on their roster yet and because they, too, are correct about growing demand between major cities (although perhaps not as correct as they’d hoped). The A380’s break-even point keeps getting pushed farther and farther into the distance. They still have not recouped the cost of that plane’s development.

More on this below.

>When the A-380 got on the market, every news organisation duly repeated the Boeing talking point that this was now the age of point-to-point travel, and so the jumbo market (which Boeing had hitherto monopolised with the 747) didn’t really exist, allegedly.

I remember reading commentary to that effect in both Europe and the States, but it was nowhere near as universal or region-specific as you depict here. In addition, Asia has always been a wild card on this point and that was probably the most unpredictable element. Still is.

>It got so that both Boeing and Airbus and the respective governments got to accuse each other of anticompetitive practices and illegal subsidies, etc.

And they’re both right. Both of them get unfair and illegal subsidies from their respective governments, [except Airbus was getting roughly three times the amount of help that Boeing got]( This isn’t terribly surprising as Airbus generally used more expensive European labor, and later, a more expensive euro for export. They’re at a competitive disadvantage and that situation is likely to continue.

>These planes fly outside of the US, mostly.

Yes, for the same reason that 747s were always more popular on international/long-haul routes than domestic ones. The vast majority of airlines couldn’t justify the expense of flying a 747 except on a long-haul route (or for a cargo flight) between major cities, and the overwhelming majority of those were international flights. The customer demand just wasn’t there otherwise. Every seat you don’t fill on an aircraft is lost revenue; if airlines had their druthers, they wouldn’t take off until passengers could be duct-taped to the wing. VLAs, as we’ve observed, have always been the most sensitive to fluctuations in passenger demand as a result, and unless you can guarantee a full flight or something reasonably close to it, you’re better off flying a smaller plane.

So VLAs make the most sense on flights between really big cities with high population density, and a predictable revenue stream from tourists and business passengers. The overwhelming majority of U.S. and Canadian cities don’t fit this profile, and that’s actually true for the rest of the Americas too. One of the things you’ll notice straight off about A380 orders is that *none of them are from North or South American airlines.* That doesn’t make the A380 a bad plane; it just makes it a plane that makes the most fiscal sense on the Eurasian supercontinent or for a nation like Australia, where almost *every* destination is by definition a long-haul flight.

>Of course Boeing can appeal to the invisible hand of the market that is home bias, and —even though Boeing has plenty of non-US suppliers and Airbus has plenty of US-suppliers— my guess would be that US airlines are scared of a potential PR backlash from being the first to buy non-American in the jumbo department.

This is where I feel you’re doing Airbus a major disservice because they are most certainly not stupid. Nobody at Airbus said a word about selling A380s all over the States because they already knew how many 747s were flying domestic routes there — which is to say, very few — and that North and South America were already dicey VLA markets to start with.

Every major U.S. carrier and the vast majority of the smaller carriers already fly Airbuses, and the 320 is the single most popular plane on the U.S. market. I don’t think we can reasonably claim that U.S. carriers have a problem with Airbus. Profit margins are so thin in the industry that it makes no fiscal sense to pick a plane on the basis of where you think most of it was built, and carriers honestly don’t give a shit about nationality if they can save money.

And yes, there have been a few political murmurs about the Emirates orders, although Emirates/Qatar/Etihad can reasonably claim to be among the world’s great “hub” carriers bridging major population centers on the western and eastern sides of Eurasia. However, a curious number of Emiratis have also acquired French chateaus over the last decade. Take from that what you will.

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