How the Airbus A380 Got a New Lease on Life

United Arab Emirates' Air Force Aerobatic Team, Al-Fursan, performs with an Emirates Airline's Airbus A380 (left) at the Dubai Airshow on Nov. 18 in Dubai Photograph by Karim Sahib/AFP via Getty Images

The world’s largest passenger airplane will live to fight another day. Airbus’s A380 superjumbo got a fresh 50-jet order from Emirates Airline, the Dubai flag carrier, on Sunday at the Dubai Air Show. The order was the first of the year for the twin-deck airplane, which has struggled with weak demand from airlines, which must struggle to fit such a large plane into their networks. Emirates is the largest buyer of the A380, with 39 in service and 101 now on order.

The plane has lost favor with several airlines, with Lufthansa and Air France-KLM backing away from the jet in favor of smaller aircraft and Virgin Atlantic Airways saying it will review whether it needs any of the six A380s it has ordered. Last week, Airbus parent EADS said it had open production slots in 2015 for the jet and that it may need to review whether to slow production, given the weak demand. (Rival Boeing’s largest jet, the 747-8, has struggled with similar weak demand.)

In the plane’s early days, Airbus marketed the spacious double-decker as a flying luxury palace, and several airlines touted visions of casinos, restaurants, and shopping galleries as potential amenities for well-heeled travelers on the A380. Those days, roughly 12 years ago, were before the global financial crisis and before volatility became the norm for jet fuel prices. Today, the plane flies with around 500 seats on the few global airlines that use it: Singapore, Emirates, Air France, Lufthansa, and British Airways. Korean Air, for example, puts only 407 seats on its A380.

A U.K. leasing company that aims to purchase 20 of the jets says that’s not nearly enough. Doric Lease, the largest lessor of the A380, says the jet needs to fly with about 630 seats to improve the plane’s efficiency. It is pushing Airbus to standardize the seat layout on the jet, which makes it simpler to transfer the plane from one fleet to another, so that when carriers such as Singapore and Emirates start to shed “older” A380s in a few years, Doric can place the jets with a new operator quickly.

“We’re looking at optimizing the space on this aircraft and making it more efficient,” Doric’s managing director, Mark Lapidus, told Bloomberg Television on Nov. 8. “It’s a cash-printing machine for an airline that is using it correctly.”

And that means more seats and a better return on each flight—to the point of potentially moving the crew rest quarters to the cargo hold, he said. A primary consideration in the new A380s will be seating density: whether to continue with a 10-abreast seat arrangement in the economy cabin or move to 11, with a 3-5-3 configuration. That would add about 40 additional seats in the cabin. Emirates puts its first and business-class sections on the upper deck. “I am sure Airbus is going to persuade us to do it,” Emirates President Tim Clark told Aviation Week, with the airline’s goal being to keep its coach-class seats at least 18 inches wide.

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