How the Airbus A380 Works

By: Ed Grabianowski

It's the largest passenger jet ever built -- so huge that airports have to be redesigned to accommodate it. It can pack in more passengers and cargo than any other commercial airliner, yet its designers claim it will actually increase efficiency, use less fuel and generate less noise.

A380 is revealed to the public.
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 is revealed to the public.

The Airbus A380 is generating a lot of excitement in the airline industry, with many people wondering if the world is ready for a plane this big.Plus, the program has been plagued by expensive delays. Although it has taken three test flights -- one in September 2006 and two in March 2007 -- the delays still lead some to wonder if it will ever be finished and ready for commercial production.

In this article, we'll find out just how big it is, how many people it can carry and whether it will revolutionize commercial aviation or turn out to be another "Spruce Goose."

The Airbus A380 is truly a giant. It has a wingspan of 261.8 feet (79.8 meters), a length of 239.5 feet (73 meters) and a maximum take-off weight of more than 1.2 million pounds (540,000 kg).

The A380 has a wingspan of 261.8 feet (79.8 meters), a length of 239.5 feet (73 meters) and a maximum take-off weight of more than 1.2 million pounds (540,000 kg).

While it is the largest passenger airliner ever made, it is not the biggest airplane in the world -- this honor belongs to the Ukrainian An-225 Cossack.

A plane this size can potentially carry hundreds more passengers than today's airliners. The A380's two passenger decks (with a cargo deck below) could be outfitted in a single-class configuration to take on up to 840 passengers. However, Airbus isn't focusing on that option, instead designing a three-class configuration for 555 passengers. That's still a marked increase over the 416 passengers that can fit into a Boeing 747-400, the current leader in passenger capacity.

In the next section, we'll talk about the A380's interior arrangement.

The Cost of Greatness
Airbus has spent an estimated $15 billion on the development of the A380. The price for a single plane is listed at $300 million. Industry experts point out that airlines rarely pay full list price, especially if they order large numbers of planes, so it is difficult to determine exactly how many planes Airbus needs to sell to recoup the development costs. It's important to remember that a new airplane design will be modified and upgraded for decades -- Airbus has said that it's looking toward 2020 in designing the A380. The Boeing 747 has been flying since 1970.


A380 Interior Setup

Why choose the three-class configuration over the higher-capacity, single-class setup? The official Airbus Web site has this to say:
    The A380's twin-aisle, twin-deck passenger cabin offers the long-distance traveller a whole new level of comfort. A cabin designed around a large sample of today's real passengers providing more space regardless of class of ticket, wider seats and aisles. Optional lower deck use for rest areas, business, bar or other amenities can further enhance the A380 travel experience.

The A380's twin-aisle, twin-deck passenger cabin offers the long-distance traveller a whole new level of comfort.

The reality is, economy class seats will be about 1 inch (2.54 cm) wider, while first-class seats may fold down into beds. Some have even suggested that the A380 could be outfitted as a "luxury jet," complete with a casino, shops, hot tubs and double beds.

A380 cabin mock-up, upper-deck business class
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 cabin mock-up, upper-deck business class

A380 cabin mock-up, upper-deck social area
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 cabin mock-up, upper-deck social area

A380 cabin mock-up, main-deck economy class
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 cabin mock-up, main-deck economy class

Most airlines are looking for efficiency rather than luxury, and the A380 provides that, as well. It has a range of 8,000 nautical miles and utilizes a host of new technologies and better engines to increase fuel efficiency.

In the next section, we'll discuss these advances in efficiency.

The Biggest Planes Ever
The An-225 Cossack is the largest plane to ever fly (see Russian Aircraft Museum: An-225 "Mria" Cossack). This six-engine monster was designed to carry the Soviet space shuttle, and first took to the air in 1988. Only one prototype was built, and the plane never went into production. After years of collecting dust, the Cossack -- with a wingspan of 290 feet (88 meters) and a length of 275.6 feet (84 meters) -- is in use as a cargo plane.

The Hughes HK-1 Flying Boat (known as the Spruce Goose for its all-wood construction -- see Evergreen Aviation Museum: Hughes Flying Boat) was built in 1947. With a wingspan of 320 feet (98 meters) and a length of 218.5 feet (66.6 meters), it was the largest plane in the world for many years. Only one was ever built, and it only flew once. "Spruce Goose" has become synonymous with ambitious, incredibly expensive projects that are ultimately doomed to failure.

The A380 comes in third overall when you compare planes by an average of their length and wingspan, but several other planes are in contention. These include the KM Caspian Sea Monster, a plane that uses ground effects to float just above the water (known as an Ekranoplan); the An-124 Condor; the U.S. military's C-5 Galaxy transport; and the Boeing 777-300ER.


A380 Advances

Airlines aren't ordering A380s just because it's big. The new design has to offer them a way to make more money, especially with the entire airline industry suffering from narrow profit margins. The A380 does offer opportunities for increased profit through the economics of scale.

The A380
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS

The operating cost of an A380 is not substantially greater than that of the Boeing 747 (the closest passenger jet in size and capacity). Every extra passenger on an A380 represents money made by the airline above and beyond what they could have made on a smaller plane. The increased range also helps add to an increased number of "seat-miles" per flight. The end result is a drop in per-passenger operating costs of 15 to 20 percent, according to Airbus.

Airbus has also introduced several updated technologies in efforts to make the A380 as fuel efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. High-efficiency engines are being developed by Rolls-Royce and a partnership between General Electric and Pratt & Whitney known as Engine Alliance.

Fitting a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine onto the MSN001, the first A380 (September '04)
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
Fitting a Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine onto the MSN001, the first A380 (September '04)

The use of lightweight materials has helped to keep the weight down, while extensive wind-tunnel testing has resulted in the optimum aerodynamic shape for the A380. Special dampeners keep the noise level coming from the engines down to about half that of other jumbo jets.

Carbon fiber, a strong, light but expensive material, is used on key parts of the A380. Roughly 25 percent of the plane's overall structure is made from carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). To create the various shapes that comprise the A380, engineers use different processes. For large, flat pieces, a computer-controlled tape-laying machine processes resin-impregnated carbon-fiber tapes in a pressurized autoclave. For curved pieces, the CFRP fabric is shaped dry and then impregnated with resin. For some parts, large pieces of carbon-fiber were stitched together by computerized, industrial sewing machines.

International Feud
The arrival of the A380 is not just a matter of Airbus versus Boeing. The launch of Airbus' mammoth jet is pitting U.S. trade officials against the European Union. At the heart of the matter are World Trade Organization treaties that limit the government subsidization of international industries. Airbus has been funded by low- or zero-interest loans from European nations throughout its existence, with some loans being outright forgiven. Industry insiders claim the A380 is the most heavily subsidized airplane in history, with Boeing claiming that $15 million came to Airbus from EU governments. There are counter-claims that Boeing receives subsidies from the U.S. government.


A380 vs. Boeing 747-400

Let's compare the Airbus A380 with the Boeing 747-400 (the 400 is the most recent and best-selling version). This comparison is based on the basic configuration of the A380, although several variations are planned, including the A380F (for freight).

The Airbus A380 compared to the Boeing 747-400
Photos courtesy Airbus SAS (left) and Chris Sloan
Airbus A380 illustration (left) and Boeing 747-400

Airbus 380
Boeing 747-400
79.8 m (261 ft 10 in)
64.4 m (211 ft 5 in)
73.0 m (239 ft 6 in)
70.7 m (231 ft 10 in)
24.1 m (79 ft)
19.4 m (63 ft 8 in)
Weight: Empty
610,700 lbs
(277,000 kg)
393,263 lbs
(178,756 kg)
Weight: Max Takeoff
1,234,600 lbs
(560,000 kg)
875,000 lbs
(397,000 kg)
Passengers (three-class arrangement)
Seating configuration
Two decks,
two aisles per deck
Two decks,
two aisles main deck
8,000 nm (14,800 km)
7, 260 nm
(13,450 km)
Service ceiling
43,000 ft (13,100 m)
41,000 ft
Top cruising speed
Mach 0.88 (299 m/s)
Mach 0.92 (313 m/s)
Long-distance cruising speed
Mach 0.85 (289 m/s)
Mach 0.85 (289m/s)
Powerplant4 Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofans
(initially 70,000 lb thrust; cleared at 80,000 lb thrust)


4 Engine Alliance GP7200 turbofans (approx. 82,000 lb thrust)
4 Pratt & Whitney PW4062 turbofans (63,300 lb thrust)


4 Rolls-Royce RB211-524 H2-T (59,500 lb thrust)


General Electric CF6-80C2B5F (62,000 lb thrust)



Logistics of Building the A380

Just putting an A380 together presented Airbus with some problems. There was no way it could create a manufacturing facility large enough to build the entire plane in one place. Various parts are built all over Europe:
  • Wings - Broughton, Wales
  • Fuselage parts - Hamburg, Germany
  • Tailfin - Stade, Germany
  • Rudder - Puerto Real, Spain
  • Nose - Saint Nazaire, France
  • Fuselage and cockpit sub-assemblies - Méaulte, France
  • Horizontal tailplane - Getafe, Spain
  • Final assembly - Toulouse, France
  • Cabin installation and painting - Hamburg, Germany
Other parts are made around the world, including some in the United States. Most of the largest parts are transported by barge.

A380 wings carried on the Dee-Dee River Craft between Airbus UK's Broughton factory and Port of Mostyn
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 wings carried on the Dee-Dee River Craft between Airbus UK's Broughton factory and Port of Mostyn

A380 fuselage components on the Garonne river, crossing the Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux, France
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 fuselage components on the Garonne river, crossing the Pont de Pierre in Bordeaux, France

The tail assemblies are the only major part that can be transported by air (using the Airbus Beluga). A convoy of huge trucks carries the parts from Langon, France, to Toulouse. To accommodate such huge components, an entire infrastructure had to be created, including special river and seagoing vessels that allow parts to "roll on and roll off," customized port facilities and widened roads.

A380 forward and center fuselage components on the floating transfer station in Pauillac, France
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A380 forward and center fuselage components on the floating transfer station in Pauillac, France

For more details on the manufacturing process, including photos, check out these links:

Airbus was worried that pilots would need extensive training on such a large aircraft, increasing the effective cost to airlines. With that in mind, it refined fly-by-wire technology to decrease the pilot workload and placed the cockpit midway between the two passenger decks to keep visibility high and make sure everything felt familiar to pilots accustomed to flying other passenger jets. A camera mounted in the plane's belly allows the pilot to check the location of the wheels. The control systems are meant to be similar to other Airbus models, minimizing the amount of additional pilot training needed to fly the A380.

Why the Delays?
As of March 2007, the A380 was nearly two years behind schedule. Airbus blames on-going difficulties with installing the more than 300 miles of wiring required. Currently, the company is working towards an October 2007 for delivery to Singapore Airlines.

In March 2007, the A380 made its first flight to America. One plane, loaded with employees, landed in New York City to the cheers of onlookers. A second, empty plane landed the same day in Los Angeles. The flights demonstrated both the A380's readiness and the ability of airports to accommodate it.


A380 Background

In the early 1990s, Airbus began to study the possibility of developing a jet with passenger capacity over 500 to directly compete with the Boeing 747. Engineering and design didn't begin until 1994, when the plane was known as the A3XX. Airbus considered a wide-body, twin-tailfin design but adopted a double-deck design instead. Eventually, the plane was designated A380, which does not keep the usual numeric sequence of other Airbus planes: The "8" was chosen because it reflects the cross-section of the plane's double-deck passenger area.

MSN001 entering the system assembly station
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
MSN001 entering the system assembly station (June '04)

In 2000, the first orders for A380s came in, and Airbus began laying the infrastructure for manufacturing the huge planes. This included massive hangars and factories in France, Wales, Germany, Spain and England.

A section of the A380 being assembled in a hangar.
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A section of the A380 being assembled in a hangar.

An overhead shot of the A380 being assembled in a hangar.
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
An overhead shot of the A380 being assembled in a hangar.

assembling the a380 in a hangar
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A forward section of the A380 being assembled in a hangar.

A shot of the entire A380 in an assembly hangar.
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
A shot of the entire A380 in an assembly hangar.

The A380 project had a staff of more than 6,000 people in 2002. While work was being done at the manufacturing end, sales were also picking up, with 14 airlines ordering 154 A380s as of early 2005.

The first complete A380 was unveiled on January 18, 2005. Its maiden flight was on April 27, 2005. The first flight with a load of passengers occurred on September 5, 2006 and the second on March 19, 2007. Although Airbus initially announced that it would still be able to deliver the first plane to Singapore Airlines by the end of 2006, the company announced further delays following the first test flight and now project to deliver by October 2007.


A380 Challenges

For all its record-breaking size and capacity, the A380 brings some important questions to mind. Where can it land? What airport can handle 800 people getting on and off one plane? Can airlines really sell enough tickets to fill one to capacity?

The A380 proposes a challenge to existing airports.
Photo courtesy Airbus SAS
The A380 proposes a challenge to existing airports.

It's true that not every airport can handle the A380's enormous bulk, but the problem isn't with runways. Extensive testing showed that the weight of the plane would not cause too much extra stress on runways. In fact, the A380 uses more landing wheels than other large jets, so each wheel actually transmits less weight to the runway than some other aircraft. Most major runways are long enough for takeoff and landing procedures, though some are not quite wide enough (the A380's engines would hang over the edges slightly). Taxiways do need to be widened to accommodate such a large craft.

The bigger issue is terminal space. There just isn't enough space to park an A380 at most airport terminals. In order to smooth the process of getting such a large number of people on and off a plane, Airbus put in two entryways. Therefore, two gangways extending from the same terminal are needed. Only a few airports are equipped with this sort of setup. Even if the airport itself is built to take on large planes, the process of ticketing, checking luggage for and security screening so many people can be a logistical nightmare for airports. The A380 is aligned to serve international flights, which leaves little doubt that lines at customs and immigration will be very long for those passengers. If weather or scheduling problems forces two or more A380 to arrive somewhere at the same time, airports estimate it could take almost a day for every passenger to be processed and find their luggage. Similar problems were encountered when the 747 was first introduced.

Airbus says its focus is on linking major international hubs such as London and Hong Kong, not on reaching every major airport. The A380 will also find uses in shorter trips in Japan. The population density of the island nation means even short routes are regularly filled to capacity.

Some (notably Boeing, for obvious reasons, but environmental groups and airline industry experts, as well), have questioned whether the A380 will be as cost-effective as Airbus claims. Airbus' efficiency numbers depend on full loads of passengers. Even a few empty seats on a such a huge plane can really eat away at an airline's profit margins, as well as the plane's emissions-per-passenger numbers.

Boeing Goes Its Own Way
Instead of competing with Airbus in a "giant plane" race, Boeing has reacted to tough times in the airline industry with a new focus on efficiency. Boeing feels that huge planes serving major hubs can be inconvenient to travelers and expensive for airlines. Providing more flights (with fewer seats per flight) to a wider variety of airports can give both airlines and passengers what they want. To that end, Boeing has developed the 787 (formerly known as the 7E7), a medium-sized plane with a capacity of about 250 passengers. About half of the plane will be made with lightweight composite materials, which, combined with newer engines and aerodynamics, will result in one of the most fuel-efficient aircraft in the sky, according to Boeing. In addition, the 787 will be capable of Mach .85, and it won't require any airport modifications. Boeing plans to debut the 787 in 2008.

For more information on the Airbus 380 and related topics, check out the links on the next page.