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Will the “giant of the skies” ever become a cargo plane?

The giant freighter that never took off

It’s been a year since Airbus announced they would cease production of the legendary A380 in 2021. Right from the moment of its maiden flight the giant four-engine airplane, with its two full-length passenger decks, was seen as extraordinary, and attracted a great deal of attention. However, in contrast to its equally famous counterpart, the Boeing 747, or “Jumbo Jet”, the freighter version of the A380 will probably never take to the skies. Yet at the beginning of its story, the A380 showed enormous promise – and not just as a freight plane.

Straight from the 80s

It took a long time for the A380 to reach the point of its inaugural flight on April 27, 2005 – to the great excitement of the international media. The plane’s development story dates back to the 1980s, when Airbus carried out the first feasibility studies for its large-capacity aircraft. Right from the beginning the intention was always to develop plans for both a passenger version and a freight version. In the second half of the 1990s the market had evolved to a point where Airbus felt they could realistically implement their plans for a wide-body aircraft such as the A380. As we can see, it takes a long time to get from an initial idea to the maiden flight.


Mammoth of the skies didn’t live up to expectations

Despite the public euphoria, major success as the “King of the Skies” would elude the A380. Right from the start, passengers loved the unique flying experience it offered, and this is still true today, thanks to its superior comfort and generously-proportioned, spacious interior, accommodating up to 853 people. Even after almost a dozen years of operation, for many travelers a flight with the majestic giant of the skies is a special experience. However, although the introduction of the A380 was initially very successful, international air travel unfortunately developed along different lines.


A disastrous trend

The original expectation was that these large aircraft would cover the routes between the world’s major air travel and transit hubs, where passengers would then transfer to onward flights to their individual destinations. However, passengers continued to book direct flights on routes that the A380 was never intended to service, because of its large size. Moreover, many of these secondary airports were not interested in making the necessary investments in construction work and expansion to the terminals and runways that would be needed to accommodate the A380, due to the high costs.

Furthermore the four-engine jet, at a length of 73 meters, height of 24 meters, and take-off weight of 560 tons, was extremely fuel-hungry. Even when the weight and fuel consumption are measured in relation to the high number of seats, more modern large-capacity airplanes now do the job better, and above all more economically. Way ahead are the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350, which are up to 15 percent more cost-effective to operate. The original sales target of 1500 planes was never achieved, and in the end only 250 of them left the assembly hangars. 


Freight version also planned from the start

Few people realize that Airbus also had specific plans for an “A380F” – the freight version of their giant plane. Amongst the first companies to place orders for the A380 were the likes of FedEx and UPS. On the maiden flight, the plane proudly bore logos of both these companies behind the cockpit, alongside others that had placed orders, such as Emirates, Etihad, Thai, Air France etc. In addition to the savings in time and fuel, the range of this huge aircraft was also a key factor: direct flights from Paris to Asia would offer great advantages for the corporations concerned. So it is not surprising that the Airbus order book included twenty freight planes (with the prospect of twenty more repeat orders), even before the aircraft was actually built. After all, the original plans for the plane included three cargo decks, able to take almost twice as much freight as the then popular MD-11F.


Masterpiece of technology with huge capacity

There was room inside for around 1,130 cubic meters of freight, which could have been transported 11,100 kilometers non-stop. But both FedEx and UPS canceled their orders relatively soon after the initial take off, because serious delays emerged in the delivery of the A380 by Airbus. The prospect of a three- to four-year delay in delivery caused customers to rethink and dealt the fatal blow to the A380F before it ever left the ground. Moreover, Airbus already had their hands full trying to deliver the passenger planes on time. A revival of the freighter project announced for early 2015 was eventually allowed to fade quietly away.


Would maximum loading be physically possible?

So what inhibits carriers now from buying these oversized giants second-hand and using them as freight planes (“P2F”), as already happens successfully all over the world with the Boeing 747F? Firstly, there are practical reasons, such as the high cost of conversion – removing the two passenger decks – and recently there has been increasing focus on two important factors: volume and weight. Would a hypothetical A380 freight plane actually be able to take off, if it was fully loaded? Wouldn’t the plane’s maximum weight-bearing capacity be reached before the entire cargo space was fully used? Important questions, when it comes to cost effectiveness.


A simple calculation

A 747F holds 710 m³ of freight and allows a maximum load weight of 448 t, while a freight model of the A380 would offer 1,134 m³ of space and a possible cargo weight of 575 t. An additional 60% capacity sounds impressive, measured in cubic meters, but by weight the Airbus can only lift 28% more. Assuming typical cargo loads of an average density, then mathematics alone shows that the loading area cannot be used to its maximum capacity. So it remains to be seen, when – or indeed if – an A380 freight aircraft will take to the skies at any time in the future. For fans of this extraordinary airplane, that would certainly be an exciting sight.