Room for manoeuvre

This first appeared as a Comment in the 25 February issue of Flight International

Back in 2005, Virgin Atlantic offered a glimpse of the in-flight services passengers might enjoy when its Airbus A380s entered service at the end of the decade. They included a casino, beauty parlours, a gym and private double beds.
Virgin’s vision harkened back to a golden age of long-haul travel and promised a future free from sardine-can flying, with room for passengers to roam while ­airborne. It was similar to that promised – and in some cases delivered – by early operators of the Boeing 747, with their cocktail lounges and first-class diners.
By the time the first A380s were entering service, fuel prices were soaring and – as with the original jumbo jet’s post-70s oil crisis – airlines’ priorities were firmly grounded in reality. But while the concept of ocean liners in the sky was never going to happen, operators have stuck with generous cabin configurations, many opting for well under 500 seats.
The boss of lessor Amedeo – the latest A380 customer – believes this is one reason the superjumbo has not had the impact on the aviation industry the 747 had three decades earlier.
To be fair to Airbus, it initially marketed the A380 as a 555-seater, and it was individual airlines that pushed for lower densities. However, Mark Lapidus believes Toulouse’s willingness to treat its product as a “big piece of real estate” – which its customers could configure as they liked – has eroded its economic appeal.
In a sense, Lapidus would say that. As a lessor, he will offer his 20 A380s in a vanilla configuration to appeal as widely as possible – but he has a point about unlocking the potential of the largest airliner ever built. In the long-run the best hope for the A380 may be as a no-nonsense workhorse, carrying 600-plus passengers.
The basic rationale for the A380 has not changed since Airbus launched the type – it is a way for airlines to instantly sell more seats into high-demand, slot-constrained hubs. There are still many 747 customers not yet tempted by the A380, including big US and Chinese carriers and Cathay Pacific. Others – such as British Airways – are taking A380s but in modest numbers. However, the unit costs of a sold-out superjumbo are indisputable and – especially in a dense configuration – may eventually win over the sceptics.
Eleven-abreast economy seating and functional premium cabins may be what eventually makes the A380 a top-seller. Passengers hoping to travel with spas and roulette tables will have to settle for a voyage by sea.

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