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Emirates calls on Airbus to make planes even bigger than A380

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Big enough for a bar and spa on board Emirates' double decker Airbus A380s
  • More people on an aircraft, lower carbon emissions per passenger
  • Key challenge for bigger aircraft is filling them
  • Many airports reaching full capacity at peak times

Airbus, the world’s largest passenger aircraft manufacturer, needs to build bigger planes to create a more sustainable aviation sector, its top customer, Emirates Airline, has said.

The Airbus A380 is the largest ever commercial passenger plane, capable of seating 853 people on two decks, together with perks such as bars and shower spas.

“When you look at the slot constraints at airports [and] the need to reduce carbon emissions, one of the solutions would be to have fewer aircraft flying,” Adel Ahmed Al Redha, chief operating officer of Emirates Airlines, told AGBI.

“Making better use of existing capacity within certain airports is another potential solution. 

“As demand from passengers continues to grow, the long-term option for aircraft manufacturers is to re-examine what bigger capacity aircraft mean for the industry,” he said.

Al Redha was discussing Emirates president, Sir Tim Clark’s comments at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) AGM in Doha.

Clark had said he often “frets” about what will happen when Emirates’ A380s are retired, particularly amid significant delays to the Boeing 777X programme.

Clark reportedly added that he would “build another A380 twice the size because of the zero-emissions engines we have now, with four, possibly three engines”.

The A380 Economy cabin is ten seats wide

Carbon footprint

Air travel generated 915 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2019, according to industry association, the Air Transport Action group.

Aviation produces about 3 percent of annual global carbon dioxide emissions, and is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF).

While most industries are shrinking their carbon footprint, aviation emissions are rising, with the WEF forecasting airline emissions to rise by 22 percent by 2050.

In 2021, global airlines, convened by the IATA, committed to reversing this trend to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

“In general, the more people you can fit on an aircraft, the lower the carbon emissions per passenger,” Dr. Jayant Mukhopadhaya, aviation researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), told AGBI.

“This might suggest that the biggest aircraft, the A380, would also be the most sustainable. 

“However, airlines often fit these super jumbo jets with more first and business class seats, which reduces the number of passengers on an aircraft. Consequently, this increases the emissions per passenger. 

“So much so that, on average, the A380, or its previous rival the Boeing 747, have the worst carbon emissions per passenger, according to our calculations,” he said.

Andrew Charlton, managing director of Aviation Advocacy, an independent air transport-focused consultancy, told AGBI that while bigger aircraft are heavier, and need more fuel to take off, a larger plane “is a good play” on a per head basis. 

First Class cabins offer spacious luxury. Source: Emirates

Filling seats

In the current economic climate, the key challenge for bigger aircraft will be “filling them”, said David Tarsh, founder of Tarsh Consulting, which provides strategic advice to the Energy and Environment Alliance, a new organisation established to help the hospitality sector reach net zero.

“The route needs to be busy enough that the airline can be confident of there being enough demand for seats,” he said. 

“Where there are airports with slot capacity constrained, such as Heathrow, flying large aircraft on busy routes makes sense from a commercial and environmental perspective.”

Aviation was among the worst hit sectors during the pandemic, as international borders shut during lockdowns. 

Total losses since 2020 are set to surpass $200 billion, and airports and airlines are struggling to recover amid the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, according to IATA.

“The expertise that Airbus has in composites, together with engine advances, would make an A380 replacement an entirely different proposition.

“But these large capacity aircraft only suit the network of a small number of airlines,” John Brayford, an independent aviation consultant and former Middle East president of The Jetsets, told AGBI.

“Network carriers such as Emirates, where there may be up to 100 connecting destinations in either direction for any one route, have shown that they can fill these large aircraft. 

“But most airlines are looking for a combination of range and capacity, with the best fuel burn per seat. With the current price of aviation fuel, fuel burn per seat will be top of the priority list.”

Only some airports have the capacity to accommodate the 850-seat Airbus A380

Bigger not always better

Brayford added that there is “prestige” afforded to airports that handle large aircraft such as the A380.

But, he noted, the pandemic has “battered the business plans of most major airports.” It’s therefore unlikely that many would be interested in spending large sums on infrastructure to accommodate a new big jet that benefits only a small number of airlines. 

“Many airports are already reaching full passenger capacity at peak times, so it is not all about the number of aircraft movements,” he said. 

Analysts remain divided on whether Airbus is likely to adjust its models to meet Emirates’ needs.

“I believe Airbus is a customer-focused company. If the customer wants something different, it will do its best to accommodate their wishes, as long as it is commercially sustainable,” Tarsh said.

However, Brayford wasn’t sold: Why would they? The A380 programme lost a considerable amount of money. I think that it will take more than just Emirates to persuade Airbus to enter into a new large aircraft venture.”

The ICCT’s Mukhopadhaya added that he did not think Airbus should continue building aircraft of the A380’s size. 

“Widebody aircraft are less efficient than narrowbody aircraft. We need the former to do the really long haul flights (more than 6,000 kilometres) but we don’t need A380-sized aircraft,” he said.

“However, if we are talking about Airbus’ ZEROe program, where they are investigating hydrogen-powered aircraft, we think that building bigger, narrowbody hydrogen combustion aircraft would do the most to achieve net zero.”

Aviation Advocacy’s Charlton also said the decision depends on “how much bigger”.

“The A380 was a failure, because there is not the market to make them profitably. There needed to be about 300 made for the aircraft to break even, but they only ever sold 200.

“Emirates bought 100 of those. At best, perhaps they can look at stretching some of their current aircraft,” he said.

Last week, Tony Douglas, group CEO of Etihad, called on the industry to put net zero at the top of the agenda as the Abu Dhabi carrier became the first airline to join the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA), an international group of practitioners and academia convened by the University of Cambridge.

Bigger planes can at best deliver a small benefit when it comes to net zero, but everyone in the industry knows that only a new sustainable aviation fuel will make a meaningful impact.

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