What we can learn about design from the fate of the Airbus A380

The impressive Airbus A380 ‘Superjumbo’

One of the tracks at Level Up 2019 (Redgate’s own product development conference) was on the theme of Customers. When our customers succeed, so do we. Profits might keep the score, but the game is to help customers succeed so they genuinely value what they pay for. This post is a summary of the talk used to introduce this theme and some of the sessions that followed.


Introducing the A380 superjumbo

The Airbus A380 ‘superjumbo’ is the worlds largest commercial aircraft! It was heralded by many as the future of modern, commercial aviation for its ability to transport huge numbers of passengers between some of the worlds major airport hubs. This plane has been in production for 12 years, costing Airbus in the region of $25 billion to develop.

Described as a “hotel in the sky” these plans were HUGE; with a total capacity in excess of 800 passengers. For context that’s the entire population of a small Cambridgeshire village like Fen Drayton or over 4 times the number of people features in Redgate’s last birthday photo.

Cambridgeshire village Fen Drayton and Redgate Birthday photo for a sense of scale.

Passengers loved the service!

Now, as a passenger, there was literally nothing to dislike about the service. They had pretty much everything you could ask for, ensure you had a great experience on these long-haul flights.

This included amenities like fully stocked lounge bars offering a wide selection of in-flight drinks and canapés. Over 50m2 of usable floor space, which offered ample, spacious seating irrespective of whether you were travelling in economy, business or first-class. They ever offered these luxury, private apartments, consisting of lounge, bedroom and bathroom with shower cubicle. Crazy right?!

Airbus A380’s luxurious amenities.

This all sounds pretty good so far. But, and it’s a big but, in February of this year, production of the Airbus A380 ceased! Despite early interest from airlines like Emirates, they ultimately failed to secure the orders necessary to make a profit. So why did it fail to the tune of 25 billion dollars?

Right for the end-user, wrong for the buyer

The chief reason for the A380’s demise was that airlines ultimately saw the service as inefficient. These plans were hugely expensive to run; costing around $29,000 per hour just to fuel. By comparison (I did the math), I could run my car for the next 14 year for the equivalent in fuel costs!

With its huge capacity also came the operating costs of having to put bums on seats. Many of the airlines were reporting flights running well under capacity, with lots of wasted seats per flight as a result. Again, this created inefficiencies for the airlines who ultimately had to bear the costs.

The service also introduced pains for the airports. If you thought boarding a Ryanair flight was bad, try squeezing 800 people through at the boarding gates! The systems around the service weren’t taken into consideration and therefore designed to accommodate (on the busier flights) the sheer volumes of people attempting to board.

The A380 introduced inefficiencies for the airlines.

Framing the problem

Our mantra here at Redgate is “Solve the right problem, then solve it right”. On reflection, this story really serves to highlight the critical nature of good problem definition and framing. Get that wrong and you’re likely to over-invest in designing and building solutions to the wrong problem(s) or for the wrong people.

So in the above story, whilst Airbus were focusing on how they might maximise capacity to transport large numbers of passengers, on single, long-half flights, between some of the worlds major airport hubs.

Competitors like Boeing set out to produce, smaller, nimbler services like the Dreamliner; focusing on efficiency and how they might avoid these major, crowded hubs altogether.

These were the needs that ultimately resonated with the buyers, in this case, the airlines, and what would see them ultimately succeed where Airbus have failed.

What can we learn from this?

At Redgate, we’ve done a great job at engaging with and learning from our end-users. We see this as a core part of our development practices, with most teams speaking to their customers multiple times a week. As a result, they have a really good understanding of their needs and furthermore, what our products should deliver to support or enable their tasks and ensure they are getting value.

This is perfect in a download-try-buy model, where we’re designing and building point-tools for smaller customers, but as we shift more of our effort towards solutions, we also need to understand how we might better serve the needs of folks in these larger organisations. As a result, we need to understand the challenges of these organisations, the outcomes they are trying to drive and how our solutions might help them succeed.

Our job is to recognise that we now need to serve both end-users and buyers in these more complex organisational relationships, ensuring both of these audiences can derive ongoing value from our solutions.