When white elephants fly


It is time to switch gears somewhat today and take a look at a really big plane.

No, I have not gone mad. (Well, no more so than usual, I suppose.)

I bring this up because the European-made, European-built superjumbo is, in my opinion, going to go down in history as a classic case of betting on completely the wrong horse.

Americans dislike Airbus aircraft, and with in my opinion at least some good reason. Airbus is basically a pan-European consortium consisting of the British, French, and German aerospace industries consolidated under one massive umbrella to build and design aircraft for both civilian and military usage.

The Europeans claim that they are simply trying to prove that they, too, can build aircraft, and very good ones, that rival and in many cases exceed American performance figures.

Americans counter by pointing out that Airbus gets considerable government subsidies from its various sponsor governments, and that without those subsidies, Airbus aircraft would simply be uneconomical to produce and maintain.

Of course, Americans usually conveniently ignore the fact that Boeing, the main - and indeed, nowadays, only - competitor that Airbus faces in the large civilian aircraft market, also gets some rather nice tax breaks and government largesse.

But all of that cock-measuring is largely beside the point. The major problem with Airbus is not the subsidies, or the fact that it is part-owned by the French.

It is the Airbus A380.

This was Airbus's attempt to knock Boeing off their throne as manufacturers of the world's largest and longest-range passenger aircraft. The iconic Boeing 747 jumbo jet has been a mainstay of passenger aircraft fleets for decades. I flew in many such aircraft as a child, and I loved it. Cattle class in the 747 was cramped, noisy, annoying, and smelly, but for a little kid, it was an absolute hoot.

Airbus observed the immense success that Boeing had enjoyed for so many years thanks to their hammerlock on the superjumbo market and decided that they wanted to get in on a slice of that action. So they decided to build a super-dooper big-ass jet that would outclass the venerable but ageing and creaky old 747 in every conceivable way - range, capacity, luxury, power, price, etc.

What Airbus missed, completely and totally, was that the economics of the airline industry were changing rapidly at the very same point in time that they were marketing their gigantic new flying white elephant.

The success of the Boeing 747 was always based on the fact that, up until the early 2000s, most travel was "hub-to-hub". If you wanted to get from the USA to, say, Japan, you had to go via one of the really big airports in both countries. If you lived on the East Coast, you had to go to New York JFK, catch a cross-country flight to Los Angeles, and then take a 747 over the polar route to Tokyo.

It didn't matter where you actually wanted to end up - perhaps you actually intended to go to Sapporo, in northern Japan, which is a fair ways off from Tokyo-Narita and Haneda. You still had to land up in Tokyo at some point in your travels.

The problem with hub-to-hub travel is that the infrastructure required to maintain the enormous gates and passenger terminals and baggage handling and amenities is simply mind-boggling and absurdly expensive. And airports themselves live or die based on whether or not people actually want to travel to them, and based on which destinations become more or less attractive to international travelers.

What Airbus failed to foresee, because they were so fixated on trying to capture the top end of the market, was that the bottom end of the market was changing very quickly.

India, China, the Middle East, Brazil, and Russia were becoming hot destinations for travel - and people in those regional hubs didn't want or need to fly in on massive superjumbos. People didn't want to have to travel to big regional and national hubs to get to where they wanted, and waste several hours at a time on layovers - they instead wanted to go point-to-point.

Boeing saw this coming, and decided that the big-budget jets had gotten absurdly expensive to build with rapidly diminishing returns. They took a good long hard look at the economics of their core market, realised that they were not sustainable, and (mostly) threw out the entire idea of hitching their fortunes to the sales of massive wide-bodied long-range superjumbos. They could see quite well that the market for such aircraft was severely limited by the economics of the industry and the changes in passenger preferences.

They opted instead for the then-radical notion of selling large numbers of smaller aircraft designed to travel from point to point. These aircraft would be based on all-new composites and building techniques, would fly lower and faster than previous planes - so that passengers arrived feeling less jet-lagged and miserable - and would be far more fuel-efficient than previous generations of medium-sized aircraft.

That way, airliners could afford to fly those planes half-empty and still expect to make a small profit.

Airbus totally missed the signs, and went all-in for their A380. (Well, they did hedge their bets a bit with the crash-development of the A350-XWB.)


It doesn't look that way right now, of course. Airbus is still selling A380s to the Middle Easterners, who for some reason appear to have an outright fascination with this giant flying turkey.

But the cold hard fact is that Airbus is building aircraft for a world and an industry that simply does not exist anymore.

Now this is where my personal experiences come in. I have flown on the A380 many times over the last ten years or so. And you know what?

I hate the damn things.

Yes, they are more spacious and slightly more comfortable than the old 747s - but not by much. And all that extra room simply means that airlines can get away with packing hundreds more passengers into cattle class than they could with the older superjumbos. As if traveling economy class was not unpleasant enough already over the course of a 14-hour journey, you now have to deal with toilets that become disgustingly unusable after "only" 8 hours, and a vastly greater number of passengers to boot.

Nothing serves to remind you of how miserable intercontinental travel is than having to deal with the swamp-ass stench left by a fellow cattle-class airline passenger as he or she squeezes past your seat, butt-first, after a visit to the bog.

Service on transcontinental flights is painfully slow due to all of the extra passengers, and you get off the planes feeling only a few shades away from death, smelling like the wrong end of a mule, and looking around desperately for a decent toilet and a place to brush your teeth properly.

I have flown from the USA to Dubai many times on the A380, and I'll tell you this right now - it simply is not worth the pain.

The Boeing 777, however, is an entirely different story.

Now this is a medium-to-long-range airliner designed specifically for the purpose of point-to-point travel. Its range is considerable - it will quite easily handle a 12-hour slog if it has to - but its optimum range appears to be in the 7-10hr bracket. (In fact a Boeing 777 once flew twenty-two hours in a single flight back in 2005. I shudder to think of what that must have been like for the pilots - I used to fly the old direct route from the US to Singapore, and that was eighteen hours straight on one of the old Airbus A340s)

It is a beautiful aircraft and, when managed properly, quite pleasant to fly in. I've flown to London, Moscow, and destinations in Asia repeatedly on 777s and the experience has generally been pretty good.

It is also considerably cheaper to operate and manage than the A380.

Given any kind of a choice between taking an A380 and a 777 - I'll take the latter, every time.

And that's before we get to the 787, the new Dreamliner. I had the chance to fly in one of those "baby Boeings" not too long ago, and it was really quite a revelation. That is a truly brilliant machine that is quite a bit more comfortable and easier on passengers than its predecessors, and offers excellent options for point-to-point travel.

The real point of all of this is simple: Airbus made a massive strategic mistake.

They looked at the top end of the market and though that they needed to compete with Boeing up there.

Boeing looked at the very same market and said, "bugger that for a bag of crisps, let's go the other way!"

The mistake that Airbus made was summed up brilliantly in a post earlier this month by our beloved Supreme Dark Lord (PBUH) in which he pointed out that it is extremely rare that an idea will ever capture the top end of the market - because, by definition, the top end has an extremely small customer base.

Instead, aiming for the bottom end is where one wins the competitive advantage. By coming in with a product that is just good enough, that is of sufficiently good quality to pass muster with more discerning customers with deeper pockets but who like a good bargain, and that provides some valuable lessons to learn from, entering at the bottom end of the market with a product that is "good enough" is often the route to success.

And so it has proven, time and again, in more industries than I care to count.

The big mistake that Airbus made was in investing so much of its time, energy, and money into building giant flying white elephants for preposterously rich camel-humping Arab oil sheiks who have nothing better to do with their billions than spend them on first-class suites in these mobile gin palaces. (Well, that, and Instagram thots willing to perform the most depraved and disgusting sex acts imaginable for the sake of $20K and all the Dubai shopping that they can get.)

And now they are paying the price. Their greatest achievement, their singular triumph, turns out to be a complete turkey.

I, for one, will actually be quite happy to see the day when the very last Airbus A380 is retired for good. I never want to have to fly on one of those damned things ever again.

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