Is the A380 less economical than a 777-300ER?

Discussion

The operational costs of A380-800 and 777-300ER

To get a handle of what is specific to Air France (costs are much higher to operate the A380 than the 777-300ER) and what lies in the aircraft, we did an apples-to- apples comparison of flying the A380 and 777 on a typical sector for this kind of aircraft, London to Los Angeles, Figure 1.

Figure 1. A typical A380/777-300ER sector, London Heathrow to LAX. Source: ForeFlight.

This is a 4,900nm route, which with a bit of headwind becomes 5,000nm (headwind is moderated by the route passing over the North Pole).

To compare the aircraft apples-to-apples, we need to configure them to the same seating standard and fly them to the same rules.

We configure them with our normal cabin for aircraft comparisons, our Normalized two class cabins. Long-range aircraft this size are configured with three (Business, Premium and Economy) or even four class cabins (First, Business, Premium and Economy), but such cabins are not suitable for comparisons of aircraft’s economics.

Each transit of cabin types in the aircraft is a source of favouring one or the other aircraft’s floor plan characteristics and door layout. Many are the “objective” cabin comparisons we have seen from OEMs where cabin types are set up to suit their “own” aircraft. The more different types, the larger the wiggle room.

We, therefore, stick to our two class Normalized long-range cabin with 15% lie-flat business seats at 60-inch pitch and 22-inch width, paired with 85% economy seats at 32-inch pitch. To make the 777-300ER and A380 have comparable economy comfort, we configure the 777 with 10 abreast and the A380 at 11 abreast on the lower deck between the main doors.

We also use the crew rest, sidewall and stair improvements from the measures Airbus has proposed for new A380s, Figure 2.

The A380 then holds 680 seats, of which 100 business and 580 economy. An equal comfort 777-300ER holds 371 seats, with 54 Business and 317 Economy.

Operational costs

When flown with our Normalized rules (100kg pax+bag, 5% enroute reserve, 200nm diversion and 30 minutes circling) and an 80% load factor, we get the trip fuel burn to 122.9t for the A380 and 75.2t for the 777. The 777 has 61% of the trip fuel burn of the A380.

When compared on a seat-mile basis, the 83% higher seat count of the A380 swings this the other way. The seat mile fuel cost of the 777 is 12% higher.

Crew costs have a similar picture. The 777 has 75% of the crew costs of the A380 but the sharing on the Pilots wages over an 83% higher seat count makes the A380 have 27% lower crew costs. This assumes the A380 Pilots are paid 22% more than 777-300ER Pilots. Cabin crew has the same pay.

Maintenance costs are 29% lower for the 777, with the seat count difference changing this to 24% lower per seat maintenance costs for the A380.

Navigation, Landing and Handling fees use our standard World Wide formulas. The fees are 24% lower for the 777 on a trip basis and 39% higher on the per-seat basis. The reason is, fees don’t scale linearly with Weight. The larger and heavier A380 has comparatively lower fees per seat than a smaller aircraft.

The overall result of the above means the Cash Operating Cost (COC) of the 777 is 22% lower on a trip basis ($137,600 versus $202,700), whereas the A380 operates on a 25% lower cost on a seat-mile basis ($0.0645 versus $0.0518).

Why this different result?

Why are we coming to a different result than Air France? Because we compare like-for-like. Air France compares the costs of aircraft with different seating modernity and densities. The A380 is compared with an old 516 seat cabin with non-lie flat business seats and spacious economy sections (Premium and normal), whereas the 777 has a modern cabin with a 10 abreast economy section.

The bigger problem for Air France, however, is load factors. The A380, configured to the same standard, is a whopping 83% larger than the 777-300ER. It just too large, for Air France and for most other airlines. Few routes can fill it consistently.

This is the real problem of the A380, not that it’s inherently less economical to operate. If one can fill the aircraft to the same load factor and if equipped with equal seating standards, the A380 has competitive economics.

There are few airlines, however, which regularly fill the A380 and even fewer which have configured the aircraft with modern high-density cabins. Emirates can fill the A380 and British Airways is happy with its A380s. They serve a slot-constrained London Heathrow well, and BA has several high capacity trunk routes.

But there must be more airports like London and more airlines like Emirates or BA if the A380 shall continue to be produced.

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