I was originally asked to answer this question on Quora: Was it a wise decision for Airbus to develop the A380?

Thanks for A2A [Ask to Answer].

This is a great question, to which I cannot say definitively without researching the publicly available financial information about Airbus, but about which I can certainly make a few informed conclusions.

So I’ll break the question into two parts:

(1) Was it wise to develop the A380 [instead of focusing on X, Y, Z]?

Wisdom is gained by the application of knowledge, and from experience through time. Here, the question is whether Airbus was “wise” to have developed the A380.

You have to realize that the A380 project — originally known as the AXX — can really trace its routes back to the 1990s, with initial thoughts arguably sparking about since the 1980s and even the 70s (yes, ever since the 747 proved its dominance). The A380 project didn’t even get green lighted until 2000 (i.e.,before the post-9/11 aviation recession).

And so it was with all the knowledge, experience, and — yes — wisdom Airbus had, at that time, that they made their decision to pursue the A380 program. Put another way, there is no way they could have, or should have known, that the A380 program may have been a sub-optimal solution; indeed, with all their knowledge and wisdom, the A380, at that time, was certainly the best path to pursue. So yes, it was wise, even if time may have proven it to be a sub-optimal result.

(2) Shouldn’t Airbus have let Boeing have the hub-and-spoke win with 747 and 787?

First, the 787 was designed precisely to avoid the hub-and-spoke model and bring long-range / small(ish) capacity to the point-to-point model; so the premise of the question is wrong. Rather, it would be about conceding the entire long-range / high capacity hub-and-spoke market to Boeing’s sole 747(-400 and its successor, the -8i); in which case, surely Airbus would have wanted to compete in what was effectively a one plane/manufacturer market. In a word, no way could Airbus allow Boeing to be the sole player, two could surely play.

Some other thoughts

I think, however, that even if the A380 ultimately proves not to be the stellar financial success it was initially hoped, history will prove it to have been a resounding “halo” success for Airbus.

Car companies often build “halo cars,” vehicles designed and marketed solely to market the engineering prowess of a company and bring greater brand awareness, even if those halo cars are financial losses.

With Volkswagen, it is the USD$2M Bugatti Veyron, which costs two-to-three times more money to build; yes, Volkswagen takes a massive loss on every Bugatti they build. A less obscure example — i.e., how many non-automotive enthusiasts associate Bugatti with Volkswagen, other than the obviously hilarious pun that the word “Bug” appears in Bugatti? — is perhaps the Audi R8 (for cousin VW company Audi); the Mercedes SLS; and stateside, perhaps theCorvette Z06 for Chevy; or Ford GT (not Mustang GT, the Ford GT).

Each of these marques invested in, and built — and continue to build — these halo cars, some of which lose money for the company, solely to bring brand awareness and recognition to the company so that they can sell more of their, shall we say, more pedestrian models.

It is highly — indeed — impossibly unlikely that Airbus embarked on the A380 project solely to build a “halo plane,” but that doesn’t mean that they weren’t hoping for some sort of halo effect at all.

When the 747 was launched, part of its allure was its unique, trademark shape with its unusually bulbous, double-decked nose. People wanted it precisely because it was different; awesome; huge; and, genuinely beautiful and graceful in look.

Now, nobody can call the A380 beautiful and graceful in design — even though I happen to have quite a love for its, shall we say, somewhat chubby, if not downright fat look — but to question whether it is an absolutely incredible, astounding piece of machinery, a veritable wonder of the modern engineering world, is simply impossible.

Indeed, so literally awesome is its size and presence, that Emirates banked virtually its entire long-haul fleet on the A380, and is now operator of the largest (by far) A380 fleet in the world: 140 orders, with 62 already delivered! Emirates even has the only A380-only airport terminal in the world.

And consider the name, too: why did Airbus go with A380 when the previous model (before the A350 was launched) was the A340? Simple: because the front cross section of the double-deck fuselage looks sort of like the number 8, but more importantly, because the number 8 is good luck in many Asian cultures, a market especially ripe for the A380 (and which, to wit, is indeed the second largest market after the Middle East for the A380).

Financially successful or not, the A380 has surely, indisputably, brought new eyes to Airbus; the A380 has become the plane that all the “kids” — young and grown-up aviation enthusiasts alike — wanted to fly, going so far as to book itineraries just to fly it. I know, because I’m one of those kids; I’ve done it too, (almost) five times now (1x Qantas; soon to be 3x Lufthansa; 1x Emirates).

Indeed, I would almost argue that the future success of Airbus is largely thanks to the eyeballs it got precisely because of the A380 program; that the A350 may never even have happened without the A380, not only because demand may have been lower, but because much of the carbon composite next generation materials and construction of the A350 were first developed for the A380.

So for all the foregoing reasons, yes, I think it was wise for Airbus to develop the A380, and I, for one, am very happy they did.

Because, just look at it! What a plane. What a piece of engineering.

What a thing!

Follow me on Twitter @MarcHoag
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