Just recently, the last superjumbo rolled out of its hangar and departed for its maiden flight. While the history of the A380 does not end with that – the giant will most likely remain flying in the skies for decades to come – the end of the aircraft production is still a bitter date for its fans.
Nevertheless, it should be remembered that this aircraft’s birth was as dramatic as its size. For over a decade Airbus, and its various divisions, worked on the concept of the world’s largest airliner. It went through various stages, one weirder than another, and became the aircraft we know and love through thousands of decisions made by hundreds of engineers.
One of those decisions was the name of the aircraft. Believe it or not, there was a very high chance the A380 would be called differently. Through its development, it had a lot of names before the company settled on the current one.
Birth of the A3XX
The first project that would later become the A380 was initiated by Airbus in 1988. It was called the UHCA: Ultra High Capacity Aircraft. Quite predictably, one of the goals for it was to break Boeing’s monopoly in the jumbo market and create something that could rival the legendary 747. But it would have also competed with other similar projects by Lockheed Martin and McDonnel Douglas. Building a massive double-decker aircraft just seemed like a perfect idea at the time.
The first idea for the UHCA – drafted by Airbus engineer and the mastermind behind the A330 and A340 Jean Roeder – was to attach two A340 fuselages to each other side-by-side, making the aircraft ultra-wide, instead of double-decked. This model was called HDB (horizontal double-bubble), and while the concept did not progress much further, it became the earliest version of what would later become the A380.
Still not throwing away the HDB, the team behind the ULCA project came up with another idea. They pitted various Airbus subsidiaries against each other to design the superjumbo, with an expectation to eventually merge their creations into one. So, in the early 90s, a whole bunch of European double-decker jet proposals appeared, such as the DASA A2000 and the BAe AC14. While all of them could be considered as predecessors of the A380 – as the final aircraft inherited a lot of their features – there was no chance that either one of them would be built or that Airbus’ final superjumbo would be called by any of their names.
In 1993, three of them got joined together and the real development of the A380 began. Those were the DASA P502/P602 (further developments of the A2000), the BAe AC 14, and the Aerospatiale ASX 500/600. All of them were called the Family 1 by Airbus, and the working title of the aircraft that could be born from joining them was the 3E P500-100 (smaller version) and the 3E P500-200 (larger version).
Variants, variants, variants
Of course, we know that a new Airbus aircraft with a name like that would sound weird. Airbus names start with “A3” – a tradition that began a long time ago and has a story of its own.
The new airplane would have to follow that format. But what number would it get? Airbus already had A300, A310, A320, A330, and A340. The logical answer would be A350, right?
For many, that was not apparent. At this early stage, Airbus did not want to reveal too much and renamed the project to the A3YY. This meant that the airplane was on route to become a real member of the Airbus lineup, quite a big deal for the company. It was also a rather brief moment. For one reason or another, the “Y” got changed into “X” shortly and when Airbus started presenting their new creation to the wide public, it already had a name that stuck to it for many years to come: the A3XX.
However, at that point it was still not clear how the airplane would eventually look. Even the HDB, the twin-A340 design, was still being seriously considered, by this point becoming the A3XX-H600. The conjoined 3E P500 project, a collection of Family 1 airplanes, got designated the A3XX-V600.
By 1994, the H600 was thrown away as not economical enough and the Family 1 got combined into one aircraft. The A3XX took its now-familiar shape, with two versions: the base A3XX-100 with approximately 500 seats and the A3XX-200 with approximately 600 seats. Meanwhile, its evolutionary stages, with subtle changes to the airframe, got assigned internal designations: Status 1, Status 2, Status 3, and so on, until Status 10. The tenth variant was what we would recognize as the A380 today.
With the design nearly finished, the talks with potential customers began. A long-range variant, the A3XX-100R, was added to the lineup in 1996, following some recommendations. In 1997, it was joined by the A3XX-50, a shortened variant specifically for Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA). The A3XX-100E freighter (later renamed the A3XX-100F) and the A3XX-100C combi (half-freighter half-passenger aircraft) were also in the works. Airbus was drawing crowds at airshows with scale models of the A3XX, and the future seemed bright.
But then, several problems struck. The Asian financial crisis began, forcing many potential customers to back off. The Airbus design team was also unable to meet the required fuel efficiency levels that would make the A3XX much more attractive than the competing Boeing 747. The program slowed down. Had it not, there was a large chance that the superjumbo would have been called the Airbus A350 to this day, with its -50, -100, -200, and other variants ‒ a logical continuation after the A340.
By 2000, there were fears that the aircraft would never see the light of day, just like many of its superjumbo peers. Despite an interest from airlines, a new push was needed. And a rebranding.
In the last months of that year, Airbus came to a decision: the aircraft was going to be launched and it would have the final name: the A380.
There are many versions of why the company jumped from “4” straight to “8”. Some say it was because such a sequence left the gap that could later be filled by intermediary aircraft – larger than the A340, but not as large as the A380. Others say that it was because “8” is considered a lucky number in China – a badly needed symbolic boost, considering the company’s relative failure in Asia.
While those are valid guesses, and likely contributed to the decision in their own right, the man behind that decision is of a different opinion. As Guy Norris and Mark Wagner write in their book “Airbus A380: superjumbo of the 21st century”, Noël Forgeard – the CEO of Airbus SAS at the time – had a different idea.
“8 suggests double-decks, one on top of the other,” Forgeard reportedly said. And so, the decision was made, and the name got stuck to the aircraft.
The whole proposed family underwent a significant revamp too. The A3XX-50, the smallest variant, was dropped. Another, larger stretch was proposed. The old designation system – with -100, -200, and so on – was dropped due to sounding “obsolete”, and the new outlook of the family was drafted, with numbers that would better emphasize the size and the advancement of the airplane: the A380-700, the A380-800, and the A380-900. With these three models, the aircraft was launched. Later joined by the ultimate version, the A380-1000, and the freighter A380F, the aircraft seemed to be the successful forerunner of the new market. Until it wasn’t. But that is a story for another day.