How the Airbus A380 Works

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.