The A380 and the Demise of the Fair Economy

Is the end of the A380 really a barometer for the productscape of the future?

Valentine’s day 2019 will certainly be remembered by many of the aviation industry — the day Airbus officially announced the culling of the A380 aircraft.

To some, it was may be just another out of date aeroplane — although by aviation standards still a fledgling design at 10 years old. But to several frequent flyers, it was a last vestige of tolerable air travel. What has inspired me to write, however, is what I see as a growing global trend across all markets, not just air travel, where budget offerings are getting more frugal and luxury offerings are getting more exclusive — a loss of a ‘fair economy’.

I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively with my job, meeting customers, suppliers and distributors all over the world. Where I am sure I find common ground with all passengers is the want for a comfortable, pleasant travel experience to ensure I arrive at my destination as fresh as possible, ready to conduct whatever business I have planned. Like many companies, the allocated travel budget at mine is fair but not infinite, and luxurious first-class longhaul travel is not something which would be favourably looked upon or justified. The solution? For me, for a long time, travelling economy on the Airbus A380.

Double-deckered and more akin to stepping aboard a ship, the enormous A380 had a noticeably larger cabin with a set of stairs at the front and rear. Tall ceilings and an unparalleled sense of space greeted most economy passengers on the main deck. Or if you were ever lucky enough to find an airline with a small economy section on the of top deck, the seating arrangement was usually more luxurious with less seats per row and a handy elbow-height cupboard installed between the window seat and the extreme curvature of the cabin wall as it widened towards the main deck.

Score some extra leg-room at an emergency exit and a 12 hour London to Hong Kong, or dog-legged 12 and 8 hour flights from London, via Singapore to Sydney were quite tolerable whilst also being fairly affordable. The graceful giant was intriguing to be on — a Captain once announced that we weighed a little over 500 tonnes headed for Singapore out of London, and when we finally left the ground the perceived slow speed and quietness as viewed out of the passenger window made the miracle of flight seem that fraction more exciting again.

Of course like most long haul economy journeys there was the usual jostling for space, cramped meal service and toilet queues. But the largeness and quietness of the plane and increased personal space truly improved what is otherwise a gruelling experience. It’s sheer size meant it could ride out turbulence more easily, and for those technologically inclined you could see Airbus’ turbulence dampening systems hard at work as wing ailerons fluttered to keep the ride smooth.

Once I got wise to this system of attaining pretty decent luxury for an economy class ticket, I began of course to find other frequent flyers doing the same. One oil company executive, sat next to me at an emergency exit (legs outstretched), explained to me that he deliberately went out of his way to choose specific seats and A380 flights from Singapore to arrive in London a little fresher and ready for meetings.

The A380 too also heralded extremely luxurious business and first class offerings. Suddenly, airlines had around 500 square metres of usable cabin floor space. Airlines’ branding and marketing departments rejoiced — they could radically differentiate on-board product, with offerings such as bars, art galleries, showers and even hotel-like sleeping suites with personal chefs for first class and business passengers. But the A380’s size and scale meant that for a significant proportion of economy flying passengers, lengthy travel was that bit more tolerable, ‘fairier’, you could argue.

The dream for a full double-decker plane stems back to the mid 1980’s. Various attempts by manufacturers, and even rivals agreeing to form a consortium tried but never got beyond design phase. The A380 was first penned by Airbus in 1994, with a formal programme launch in 2000 — the company’s sights firmly set on taking a slice of Boeing’s market share domination of very large aircraft with their 747. When it finally entered service with Singapore Airlines in 2007, the A380 was late and vastly over budget. During the time between development and launch, the September 11th terrorist attacks had virtually overnight reshaped the aviation industry. Rising operating costs and environmental drives now meant airlines wanted frugal, two engined planes which could operate niche, direct routes. Airbus had built a four engined giant which could only really connect major city hubs- requiring special airport alterations to be able to operate.

Nonetheless the aircraft sold to a handful of global ‘superpower’ airlines, and like me has built a loyal fanbase of passengers who recognise and prefer it's preferable in-flight experience. Airbus too, hedged its bet on this handful of airlines continuing to prop up the production line. And so, the recent order cancellation by the A380’s largest operator, Emirates, sealed the A380 production line’s fate.

Narrower, single decked, smaller and more efficient two engine aircraft are what the airlines are now after in a difficult to make profit industry. Evidence as Emirates, mentioned above, transitioning their cancelled A380’s for Airbus’ newer A350 jet — an efficient twin engine airliner which in varying forms can connect even the furthest city pairs carrying about 360 passengers. Boeing, perhaps the winners of this crystal ball contest, launching their all carbon-fibre rival small twin engine 787 ‘Dreamliner’, its focus on connecting unique city pairs, around the same time as the A380 in the late 90’s.

The future of product scape? Disparity between baseline offerings and the “middle ground”.

And where to now? Well, for passengers I would suggest this is concerning. I have travelled on both the A350 and 787 — both models of smaller aircraft that the manufacturing giants and airlines are now hedging their bets on, and found the passenger experience less than underwhelming. The cabin has two aisles but economy offerings are rarely any more futuristic or comfortable than stepping on a shorthaul flight across Europe.

As I sat on a 787 from Seattle to London last year, I began to ponder how much worse longhaul economy travel seems to be getting. The 787’s lightweight design is evident in just about everything in the cabin — from the seemingly thin and flexible wall panels to the excruciatingly thin seat I was sat on — the 6ft passenger sat behind me whose knees still very much imprinted on my back after a 9 hour flight. I watched in amazement as a barrage of air rage broke out a few rows ahead, because of the aforementioned thin economy seat’s inability to deal with the simple vibration caused by a passenger sitting down, meaning that red wine from the passenger’s meal table behind had been flung everywhere. I appreciate that cabin furnishings are airline specific, but I have found this across several different airline’s 787s.

All this, whilst the first class passengers were happily nestling into the freshly turned down lie flat beds. And this I find a barometer for almost every industry or service these days. The economy, budget or baseline offering usually includes nothing but the bare minimum — I experience this having recently looked for insurance, wifi home security, hotels, even electric cars. In the airline industry, you only have to look at budget shorthaul European travel as a somber indication of where things are headed. Everything in any product or service is possible however for the premium offerings, usually including a cloud based subscription with an app.

As a product manager, I am most definitely a firm believer in getting what you pay for. But I also believe in the part of any manufacturer or service provider (in this case the airlines) a duty to close the gap with some offering between your baseline and most luxurious, expensive product. And making it affordable. A shoutout for the “middle”-man.

The A380 economy offering represented a slight bridge in this disparity, without the necessity to pay sometimes double fare for airlines’ latest marketing ploy “premium economy” — which actually just looks like business class did in the 90’s.

I’d love to hear others views on this- not just in the above mentioned categories. Do you see this disparity between baseline and premium product offerings?

I sadly do not have a solution, but maybe now in penning this piece continue my fight for the ‘fair economy’. And most definitely, a fairer deal for economy passengers.