Hey, I was Actually Right

A number of years ago, when I was in marketing for the commercial aviation business at AlliedSignal (now Honeywell), I made a lot of presentations to folks that they shouldn't bet the farm on the Airbus A380 because it made no sense.  I didn't think it would ever get built.  Well, very few people in the aviation business wanted to hear this.  Most people in aerospace are airplane guys first, and business guys second.  They wanted this plane to be built and longed to be a part of it.  I left before everything was finalized, but my sense is they went off and spent tens of millions of dollars to develop products for the A380.

Well, I was right and wrong.  The plane still makes little sense, but it will get built. Maybe.  Someday.  What I underestimated in the latter question was the willingness of European governments to push the plane against the headwind of economic reality merely as a grand salve for the European ego.

What was wrong with the plane is still wrong now.  The original logic, which the company still parrots today, was that airport congestion would require larger and larger planes.  If airports are at capacity, in terms of the number of planes they could handle, the planes have to get larger, right?  Well, no.  The problem with the larger plane is that the FAA and other air transport regulators will require the larger plane to have larger spacing with trailing planes  (the larger the plane, the more they create turbulent air and very stable wingtip vortices that pose a danger to trailing planes).  In fact, regulators are going to force double or triple the spacing behind the A380 that is required of the 747.  How does the plane help congestion, then, if it holds twice the people but takes up three times the landing capacity?  Answer:  It doesn't.  The same arguments can be made where gate space is at a premium - loading and servicing times for the plane can be expected to be twice as long as a regular plane, so in effect it takes up double the gate capacity.

Glenn Reynolds links to this Popular Mechanics article covering this ground and more on the A380.

Postscript:  The alternate strategy to deal with congestion is to start to abandon the hub and spoke system and move to a point-to-point flight network using smaller planes and involving more airports.  This takes connecting traffic out of overloaded hub airports.  Its the way the market has been moving, with competitors like Southwest and JetBlue developing point-to-point networks.  Asia may be the exception to this development, and it is no accident most A380 orders are Asian airlines.

While I am patting myself on the back, I also said that the Boeing Sonic Cruiser made no sense.  The engine and body/wing technology that would make the Sonic Cruiser could either be applied to generate more speed at constant fuel consumption or to achieve current speeds at greatly reduced fuel consumption.  I predicted that 10 out of 10 airlines would prefer the latter.  And that is the way it played out, with Boeing dropping the Sonic Cruiser, the more monumental and sexy project, in favor of the unsexy but demanded-by-the-marketplace next generation fuel efficient mid-sized aircraft.

  • Fred

    The A380 has Concorde disease. It's the same kind of grand governemnt jobs program that has all the political priorities first and maybe they will get around to making an airplane, too.

  • R.Hikmat Kartadjoemena

    Agree on all the issues made by the writer.

  • ArtD0dger

    The smart aircraft manufacturers are clued to this too. Used to be on a short flight you just knew you'd be stuck on some slow, noisy turboprop that shakes your fillings out. But now, you often get one of those nice Canadair regional jets. They're fast, smooth and quiet, just like a regular jumbo jet without so much jumbo.

    Don't the folks at Airbus actually, you know, fly?

  • ScottH

    I've heard horror stories about CAD drawing problems with the A380 program; apparently errors were introduced into the part files when they were converted from their original formats into CATIA (Airbus' CAD software) format and back again. I understand Boeing also uses CATIA; I wonder what their experience with file conversion is?

  • http://politics.lel-hosting.com/ Matt

    The irony is that the A380 makes even less sense for the European market than it does here in the States. All it could possibly be good for is long-haul P2P flights. New York--London, LA--Tokyo, MAYBE New York--LA but probably not. Certainly not flights between EU members.

  • Josh

    The link to the popular mechanics article is broken. It is missing the final "l".

  • Rob

    I work for the company who makes CATIA: DASSAULT SYSTEMES.
    CATIA is a not an Airbus proprietary format.

    The problem Airbus was one of culture. As you know Airbus is split between
    Englands, Spain, France, Germany; likewise their software.
    In fact, Airbus is/was using 2 different versions of the software, with
    some of the features only being supported in the newer version.
    They ran into problems when the new features couldn't be converted into
    the older version, since the functionality didn't exist. The public
    reports mention that it had to do with wiring mostly.

    Boeing on the other hand, a commercialized (not gov't) entity for the most part, chose to work
    with one version of the DASSAULT SYSTEMES software suite. They are already saving money,
    and are one schedule (I know from experience that it's aggressive and that deadlines are not pushed
    back due to gov't bureaucracy)

    That being said.
    I think this is a good example of why Gov't should not be in business.
    Bureaucracy causes too many delays.

  • ScottH

    Rob said:

    "CATIA is a not an Airbus proprietary format."

    I didn't mean to imply that; I should have structured my sentence better. I'm a very happy user of Dassault's Solidworks software.

    I first heard of the Airbus CAD problems at Evan Yares' blog:

    http://www.evanyares.com/the-cad-industry/2006/10/17/killing-your-company-with-cad.html

    but he didn't explain exactly what the problem was. Thanks Rob for filling in the rest of the story.

    In the post I referenced above Evan Yares (he's president of the Open Design Alliance ( http://www.opendesign.com/ ) which promotes developing standard formats for exchanging CAD data) talks about government intervention being the only way to make universal exchange of CAD data possible.

    For example it would be nice to be able to open a Solidworks file in Inventor or CATIA and vice versa with no loss of features, but writing that interoperability into law seems like a good way to curtail innovation in the design of CAD software. I'd rather let the market work things out on its own; it may cost more (needing to buy two or more programs and spending time cleaning up data created in another program) but you get lots of great new features each year.