The A380 needs a long run-up to get off the ground (around 3km of runway), but it has taken just 12 years since it came into service to be pulled from sale. A short career by aerospace standards. The Boeing 747, launched in 1969, is a comparative dinosaur with more than 1,500 planes delivered. It was in October 2007 that Singapore Airlines flagged the first commercial flight of the A380 between Singapore and Sydney.
It was last October that, for lack of buyers, a first super jumbo, initially leased by the same company, began to be broken up for parts at Tarbes in the absence of a second hand market for a working plane.
In 2021, Airbus will stop making its super jumbo. It will leave the aircraft manufacturer with a big bill, more than USD 20 billion rather than the USD 12 billion initially budgeted. When the production line finally grinds to a halt, 250 aircraft will have rolled off.
The plane’s fate was always tied to the Emirates airline which was to take half the fleet. Its decision to turn 39 outstanding orders at a catalogue price of USD 17 billion into 30 A350s and 40 A330s Neo was the death warrant, even though the Emiratis will continue to fly their existing fleet until 2030.
The A380 was meant to be the plane of the future. Rising air traffic and saturated airports would create demand estimated by Airbus at 1,400 very large aircraft. Passengers were delighted with the comfort and quietness of the new plane, but companies soon began to question whether they could consistently fill their more than 500 seats. The A380 hit the market at the height of the financial crisis and its 4 engines proved too thirsty for operators. Very quickly, it was struggling to compete with the twin-engined Boeing 777 or its own A350.
Engineering triumph and passenger favourite it may be, but the A380, like Concorde, is an extraordinary invention which never found its market nor triggered a revolution in flying habits. In 1921, at the prestigious Concours Lépine show, Constantin Caroni presented to the jury his revolutionary steam iron. They found it too avant-garde, not to say dangerous, and it would take another 40 years before it finally went on sale in the USA, after the patent had expired1.
Inventiveness is still a live force on the old Continent and French companies are particularly successful. In its latest 2017 rankings, the European Patents Office placed France 4th in the world for patents filed, behind the USA, Germany and Japan but ahead of China. Since the CAC 40 launched in December 1987, its top performers have been L’Oréal, Kering, Safran, Sodexo and Essilor – all innovators in their markets.
The challenge for companies is the same as ever: to turn invention into innovation. In other words, for an invention to find its market and sell. Lewis Duncan2 summed it up well: “Innovation is the ability to convert ideas into invoices”.
Didier Le Menestrel
with Olivier de Berranger
2 US Senator, Chancellor of the Texas Tech University System