A380's ups and downs: superjumbo turns five

The A380 superjumbo turns five, but it hasn't all been clear skies for the world's largest passenger aircraft, writes Craig Platt.

It is five years today since the world's largest airliner, the Airbus A380, took off on its first commercial flight, bound for Sydney from Singapore.

Thirteen years in the making, the A380, dubbed the "superjumbo" after it outsized the previous biggest bird in the sky, the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, was and remains a marvel of engineering.

Seventy-two metres long, with a wingspan of just under 80 metres and a weighing (unladen) 361 tonnes, it's seems to defy logic that something so big could fly at all.

But fly it does, and has been doing so on a regular basis since Singapore Airlines became the first carrier to take delivery of the aircraft back in 2007.

The sheer size of the A380 has allowed airlines to do things with the interiors that would have been impossible previously. Singapore Airlines set the precedent by creating private “suites” in its first class cabin – enclosed spaces that were virtually private cabins in themselves. The suites allow couples to convert their seats into a double bed. Emirates, too, broke new ground with its A380 by becoming the first airline to install showers on board (in first class only, of course).

Singapore Airlines may have been first but the superjumbo now also flies with Qantas, Emirates, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Lufthansa, Air France, Korean Air and China Southern. There are now 84 superjumbos flying around the world. Emirates has the largest fleet at 25 and remains the biggest customer for the plane, with a total order of 90.

Currently the total number of seats on board vary by airline from Korean Air's 407 to Air France's 538. It's estimated that the superjumbo could carry as many as 840 passengers in an all-economy fitout – something Reunion-based carrier Air Austral has expressed an interest in doing.

Despite its size and four massive engines, passengers have praised how quiet the A380 is. For some, it's too quiet – early in its operation some Emirates pilots complained that the lack of "white noise" they were normally used to was preventing them from getting sleep during long-haul rest periods.


But it hasn't all been clear skies for the superjumbo since that first flight. A series of high-profile incidents have occurred, the most notable being the engine explosion on board Qantas flight QF32 on its way from Singapore to Sydney. The incident, traced to a faulty oil pipe, damaged the plane severely, forcing Qantas to take it out of service for 18 months and spend $139 million on repairs. It also saw Qantas ground its entire fleet of superjumbos for more than three weeks while it checked all the Trent 900 Rolls-Royce engines for similar flaws.

More recently, Airbus has been working to repair small cracks in the wings of its giant planes, though authorities have given the aircraft the OK to continue flying.

Despite these issues, the A380 remains a popular choice for airlines, with a total 257 orders. This is well ahead of its major rival, Boeing's new 747-8 jumbo jet, which has received only 41 orders so far.

For Airbus, the next step is to become even bigger. The European company has signalled that the next version of the A380, the 900, will be a stretched version of the superjumbo capable of carrying up to 1000 passengers.