Nation & World

Future of Airbus megaplane now shaky

Hub-and-spoke flight system could erode over time

Washington Post

An Emirates Airbus 380 waits at a gate at New York’s Kennedy Airport.
Washington Post An Emirates Airbus 380 waits at a gate at New York’s Kennedy Airport.

It was designed to become the grande dame of aviation, an enormous modern plane that could seat 544 passengers — 853 if you squeezed people in — on two decks, replacing the venerable Boeing 747 with a new standard of luxury in flight.

Just 11 years later — almost a nanosecond in the life of a commercial airplane — two Airbus 380s can’t find a home and are about to be broken up and sold for parts.

The A380 may still be the future of aviation — Airbus makes that argument — or it may be the relic of an era from which aviation has spun forward with startling speed.

But there is no question that the giant aircraft is hanging by a thread after it was first delivered in 2007 with fanfare that suggested it was the Next Great Thing.

Moreover, what happens to the largest commercial aircraft on Earth may reflect an evolution in air travel caused, to put it most simply, because smaller planes can fly longer distances.

If those who live in a big city, which is pretty much any city that is home to two or more major professional sports franchises, it’s a safe bet they’re in a hub for at least one airline, and maybe several.

Most of the rest of America is in a spoke city.

The hub system is one reason a flight from Boston to Denver might go through Chicago on United Airlines, Dallas on American Airlines or Atlanta on Delta Air Lines.

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The hub-and-spoke system isn’t going to evaporate from domestic travel any time soon, but there are several signs that over time it may erode.

The chairman and chief executive of Southwest Airlines, Gary Kelly, likes to say that “point-to-point is a scheduling philosophy.”

While Southwest has hubs in 10 big-city airports, its planes fly an average six flights each day, so it also provides direct flights between a lot of cities that are spokes for the three other big U.S. airlines.

The Boeing 737 has been Southwest’s plane of choice since the outset, but today’s Boeing 737 Max is a very different airplane from the one that first flew 51 years ago.

Among the biggest changes, the 737 Max has more than doubled the distance it can fly. The plane that once had to make a refueling stop to get across the United States can fly from Philadelphia to Dublin.

For Southwest, the range of the 737 means later this year or early next, there will be flights to Hawaii from four California cities that aren’t San Francisco and Los Angeles, the state’s two big airline hubs.

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