A decade after the Airbus A380 made its first passenger flight, clouds are still ahead of the world's biggest commercial airliner.

While 317 aircraft have been ordered and 216 delivered, there hasn't been a new order for two years and Airbus announced this year that it was scaling back production.

The plane has been a distinctive and reasonably frequent sight at Auckland Airport, with as many as five A380s a day landing last summer, but that number will fall next year when all Emirates services across the Tasman from the city end in March.

Airbus maintains there's a future for the plane, especially flying large numbers of passengers between hub airports which have a constrained number of slots.


In a single-class configuration, the four-engined A380 can seat more than 800 people. The plane was imagined in 1988, when Airbus began studies of an ultra-high-capacity aircraft. This was at a time when plane builders were imagining a 1000-seat Boeing 747 for domestic flights and 2000-seat ''super 747s'' for international flights.

Since then, Boeing has scaled back its jumbo programme - modifying its base model 747 to the slightly bigger and modernised 747-8. Both the big planemakers have seen strong sales of twin-engine, ultra efficient new generation aircraft such as the Dreamliner, 777X and A350XWB. Two engines are cheaper to run than four.

And Airbus launched into the A380 programme in the early 1990s, with a plane that hit a limited part of the market at a time when airline spending collapsed.

United States-based aerospace consultants Teal Group estimate development costs for the A380 at up to $US25 billion ($36b).

The A380


List price


Estimated price airlines pay



Surface of the A380 is covered in three layers of paint weighing around 500kg.

4 m

Flex of the wing during take-off

Vice-president of analysis at Teal, Richard Aboulafia, has been a critic of the A380 and told the Herald it was a "dismal idea" and he expected the programme to die by 2020.

"The losses for Airbus and its suppliers will be painful, but given the success of all their other products right now, manageable."

In its latest report on the plane, Teal says current list prices are US$436.9 million but discounts reduce that to US$215m-US$230m. It is estimated the number of planes Airbus will have to sell for the programme to break even has grown from 250 to 500.

"Despite the order book and our production forecast numbers, A380 has by most accounts been awful," said Aboulafia. "Since the first round of customers comprises the very people who require a plane in this class."

So far, Emirates has ordered nearly half of all A380s and will this weekend pick up its 100th superjumbo, a plane that has underpinned spectacular growth from major world airports through its Dubai hub and also opened up some smaller city pairs.

Emirates has another 42 of the planes on order and president Sir Tim Clark remains a big fan. He's due in Hamburg this weekend to pick up the milestone aircraft.

The big planes have allowed Emirates to shift large numbers of passengers - 80 million since August, 2008 - but also use the cavernous interior to install luxuries such as a bar for premium passengers and showers for those in first class.

"I know Airbus is anxious to talk to us about ordering more. But there's a limit to how much real estate we can put into Dubai at one time," he told the Herald last month.

"It's been a great success for us, and will go down in the annals of aviation history."

The new bar area aboard an Emirates A380. Photo / Supllied
The new bar area aboard an Emirates A380. Photo / Supllied

The airline now flies the superjumbo to more than 40 destinations spanning Africa, Asia, Australasia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. It will continue its transtasman services from Christchurch and non-stop Auckland-Dubai flights next year.

He said the A380 hadn't done as well for Airbus as it could have.

"It came to market at the wrong time. But for us it's been hugely successful."

Emirates has revamped its popular bar area this year.

Rival Gulf carrier Etihad has gone even further, installing the only three-room suite on a commercial airliner. It has a living room, separate bedroom and ensuite shower room. A one-way flight from London to Abu Dhabi costs about $16,900.

And in a sign that there's still demand for high levels of luxury in big planes on certain routes, Singapore Airlines today unveiled its new first-class suites.