It’s all over the news: Airbus is to stop making the world’s largest passenger plane, the A380. But what does that mean for us travellers – since people love the huge, quiet, spacious plane – and what does it mean for how we’ll fly in the future?
Initially, little is likely to change, and Airbus plans to be supporting the plane well into the 2030s. Airlines that fly the A380 aren’t suddenly going to be getting rid of the plane noticeably faster since Airbus is going to keep supplying parts for decades to come. In fact, you’re likely to see newer seats, better inflight entertainment screens, onboard connectivity and even more bells and whistles. At least now, airlines will have certainty about whether they’ll want to refurbish their existing A380s or buy new ones, as it won’t be possible to buy them for much longer.
Since most of us travel in economy most of the time, we won’t have a chance to miss the swanky bars, onboard showers, bedroom suites or other perks from the rarefied airs of the A380’s first and business class. But if you’ve ever wanted to browse an inflight duty-free shop – yes, an actual duty-free shop with products in displays and everything, even in economy – put flying on one of Korean Air’s A380s on your bucket list in the next decade or so.
Overall, the A380 was a fantastic plane for passengers. Its size means that it’s remarkably quiet, although there’s an argument to be made that the lower levels of white noise mean that loud conversations, snoring neighbours and crying babies aren’t muffled quite as well.
The shape of the lower deck economy cabin means that it bulges out at shoulder level, so you don’t have a frame of the plane jutting into your arm like some other aircraft. That doesn’t sound like much, but the A380 flies the world’s fourth-longest flight (Emirates, Auckland-Dubai, over 17 hours) and seventh-longest flight (Qantas, Dallas-Sydney, just about 17 hours), and every bit of advantage is important.
The number of seats available on the A380 has also been good for passengers since it means they need to fill so many seats. Some travellers have got fantastic deals as a result, and when smaller planes replace the A380 they’re likely to have a higher proportion of business class and premium economy seats and a lower proportion of economy class seats, which may well mean that fares end up rising.
The A380 doesn’t have the lower humidity and cabin altitude of newer planes like the A350 or 787: the difference is 6000 feet vs 8000 feet, which doesn’t sound huge but it means you end up feeling less jetlagged, your skin is less dry, and you’re overall less fatigued and dehydrated.
Eventually, though, airlines will move to newer, lighter, smaller, more efficient planes like the Airbus A350 or Boeing’s 787 and forthcoming 777X. This will be both good and bad news for travellers, but on balance you’re likely to end up with less space. One of the great things about the A380 was the width of its seats, especially in economy, whether you’re sitting upstairs or downstairs on the double-decker. Upstairs, especially, passengers love the side bins at the window seat, which are great for storing your stuff, spreading out on and even leaning on for a cat nap.
Boeing’s 787 and 777 aircraft have seats that are a lot narrower, since the vast majority of airlines have seats over an inch narrower than the A380’s on those planes. On the plus side, the A350 offers a ride that’s about as comfortable as an A380, unless you’re on one of the ultra-low-cost airlines or leisure carriers like Air Caraïbes or AirAsia X, where there’s an extra seat in each row there too.
There’s mostly good news for passengers travelling from smaller cities that aren’t hub airports, since the A380’s role was connecting hubs to cities with a huge demand for flights. Instead, what we’re likely to see is smaller planes making nonstop flights to destinations that would previously have required a hub connection.
In the long term, though, this aviation journalist is of the opinion that we’ll miss the A380. Its passenger experience is among the world’s best in economy, its size means that more capacity can be created in a single flight to the world’s busiest airports, which are often popular tourist destinations, and the sight of one of these airborne behemoths taking to the skies is one of the wonders of our modern world.