The SuperJumbo Takes Off

Airbus’ new superjumbo A380 made its first test flight without incident. As tempting as it is to launch into some gratuitous Frog-bashing, the A380 is a cool piece of technology. However, as an economic choice, it may not do as well as Airbus thinks. The A380 can have onboard bars, tennis courts, etc, but the airlines will still end up turning into into yet another winged cattle car. The A380 is very fuel efficient, and ticket prices may be lower, but with airlines already cutting prices to the bone and rising fuel costs, that probably won’t get passed to the consumer.

And there’s still the issue of delamination of the carbon-fiber structure of the plane caused by the normal stresses of flight. With a bird as large as the A380, that has to be a concern. Doing the required manual ultrasound checks of the entire aircraft structure isn’t something that airlines are going to be keen to do — even a visual inspection on a bird of that size would take a considerable amount of time. Carbon-fiber has a lot of advantages, but it remains to be seen how it performs over the long-term in aircraft that will have an operational service lifetime of decades.

4 thoughts on “The SuperJumbo Takes Off

  1. Another thing to consider is this: the underlying assumption is that the A380 will increase the number of passengers, keeping the number of flights constant or raising it, rather than keeping the number of passengers constant while reducing the number of flights. There will still be the same amount of take-offs at any given airport, but the amount of passengers has to increase. The problem I see here is that most airports have already reached their maximum capacity as far as the number of passengers they can handle in any useful amount of time and care is concerned.

    So not only will the airlines spend money to buy those planes, but the airports will have to spend money to increase their capacity. If nothing else, new safety measures will have to be taken. Evacuating a plane of 555 passengers in some 90 seconds cannot be done with the measures used for evacuating, say, a DC10.

    These airport enhancement will cost money, and it’s either going to be passed on to the passengers, or the tax payers in places where the city/state/country has a share in the airport business. Not all airports will be happy to do this, or even be able to do this. In Germany, the Berlin airport is definitely not going to be able to handle such planes (there just is no room to expand the airport into), the Frankfurt Airport faces opposition from people living in the area (and since the ones whose quality of living might decrease due to a bigger airport in Frankfurt are filthy rich, they have ways of making their voices heard…). Only the Munich airport claims to have the capacity to host such a plane at the moment.

    Long story short… Building such an enormously huge plane is only one side of the story. I am not certain wether the other aspects are currently sufficiently thought off.


  2. vincent: Interesting article (although my French is a bit rusty… :))

    The problem with delamination is that you really can’t test for it. It isn’t caused by mechanical stress, but moisture working its way into the structure over time. You really can’t do a test for that on the ground.

    The French government recently mandated visual inspections of all Airbus A300 and A310 rudder assemblies – if they went further and asked for ultrasound inspections they could spot voids in the carbon fiber before they threatened the hull.

    I have to admit, the A380 is one cool piece of technology, and Boeing’s going to have to keep up. A little international competition is a healthy thing for fostering innovation…

  3. Well, MY French is not rusty at all – I never knew any French to have any now to gather rust 😉

    As far as I could make out using the wonderful Babelfish translator on Altavista, there is some technology applied (or tested?) to make the material respond to fluctuations in hull size due to friction-induced heat? To stabilize the whole thing? Coolness! I could need that for my car (if I had one) to make it fit into really small gaps in the parking lot…


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