An aircraft tug manufacturer's website had this interesting table:

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Just curious, why the heaviest Airbus is a good 150 tons heavier than the heaviest Boeing? Otherwise, these two rivals have close competing aircraft for most specs.

I mean, how do the rivals end up with such different operating points. Obviously, I don't mean its an apples to apples comparison (different payloads) but what I mean is whatever market segment it was that Airbus was trying to serve with an A380, did Boeing not find that an interesting segment? Is this a strategic difference in a large plane / smaller plane sense?


3 Answers 3


Short Answer:

Difference in corporate mindset between the two companies and incompatible interpretation of market conditions and projections of future market demand.

Long Answer:

@Anilv answers your question to an extent but you should really understand the total scope of the commercial aviation sector. Airbus is a relatively newer company that has a widely different mission goal than Boeing: Airbus is an exclusively EUROPEAN owned multinational company with a majority share under EADS, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company. It was primarily brought together to give Europe and its smaller more specialized companies another chance against massive, government backed corporations from America (the big three: McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed Martin, and our big daddy Boeing). This actually caused quite a bit of a political sh*tstorm, with Boeing complaining that Europe's explicit backing of this new Airbus being far too pointed in corporate tie-in with government, but besides for some concessions made to ease relations with America, Airbus was allowed to continue receiving grants and other national backing from its parent countries.

Now to explain specifically why Airbus doesn't compete directly ALL the time with Boeing's aircraft is because frankly, leadership of both companies cuts projects all the time in different sectors because of their individual personas and visage for the companies' futures. I'm glad you mentioned the A380 because except for a few other situations continuing the A3XX (in-house title for A380 prototype) was by and large the most controversial internal decision made by any Airbus executive. The situation was this: Both Boeing and Airbus were looking at the VLA (Very Large Aircraft) concept, an idea becoming popular in the 90's due to burgeoning flight routes and demand for efficient carriers of mass amounts of passengers. Also, as the Gulf War ended Airbus had begun to reap profits with their A330 and A340 series aircraft. However, not too long ago Boeing had released its jumbo-jet 747-100 and -200, which were extremely popular and Airbus leadership was getting worried about their potential loss in this possibly goldmine niche. Alan Boyd, at the time president of Airbus North America reported after a joint study with Boeing of the market that Airbus predicted a market for about 500 to 600 airplanes, while Boeing envisioned a market for only 300 to 350. Interestingly both saw a profit margin of about $15 billion. Boeing saw the risk/reward too high, and at the time (I would argue it still is) was very encumbered with bureaucracy and promises to keep to the American government. It was a large project no matter what, and Boeing to an extent was on America's payroll after all. However, although risks were high for Airbus as well, the company exec at the time, the legendary Jean Pierson saw that the risk was worth taking, not only because of projected efficiency and prototype designs, but also because he needed to protect the rest of Airbus' lineup.

To even comprehend the complexity of the issues facing these men, you MUST understand that decisions to make or scrap a new plane isn't an isolated choice: an airline buying a new plane from one maker is highly unlikely to mix and match to buy a different size plane from another maker just to fit a smaller or larger route i.e. buy the A380 for its long-haul high-demand routes and the 787 for its longer but lower-demand routes. Boeing on the other hand had a relatively fleshed-out spread of planes and due to a HIGHLY incorrect mindset of complacency and EVOlution rather than REVOlution, they did not seize this oppurtunity to expand and improve. This was common knowledge to all business-minded men in the sector who were worth their jumping beans (sadly few at Boeing after , so the most prominent factor in Pierson's mind was probably his defense of the also-new A340 series, a small long-haul aircraft that fills a similar role to the new 787. This, as the chart you provided shows, filled a spot that was projected to be VERY profitable (as Boeing found out too late and rushed in the 787 to fill) but at immediate time was a little too hard to swallow for most medium sized airlines. Keep in mind that Airbus was still trying to prove itself to the world.

So, by Pierson's logic introducing a superior 747 in the form of the A380 would not only draw attention to the plane itself, but also help establish the A340 and start the ball rolling for future development of the wide-body long range medium size airliner. So, that's pretty much why the A380 was a (mostly) no-brainer for the Airbus group, and from the late 80's on, why Boeing and Airbus' line of airliners has considerably diverged. Hope this answers your question, and if you'd like more information or just clarification feel free to comment.

[Edit] The book Boeing Versus Airbus: The Inside Story of the Greatest International Competition In Business gives a wonderful account of everything I just detailed and more. I've read it multiple times and I never cease to learn something new from something under 300 words. Give it a try if you have time!

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if I'd call the A380 a "no-brainer." Note that the book you cite is of 2008 vintage, and the last ten years have seen a different story. The A340 went away after only 377 built. And most people opine that the A380 and 747-8 are both at the end of their lines. I don't believe the A380 ever became a profitable endeavor. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Mar 9, 2018 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ You have a solid point, but like I said earlier its other purpose was to bring attention to its other line up. I'm mainly a proponent of Boeing personally, and you can tell I'm quite disappointed with their corporate half right now, but both companies make these decisions looking to the future. I may be wrong, but each company has future planes in the workings, so the A380 at this point should probably be seen as a hopeful stepping stone. Large planes are cool though, so the 'luxury' and novelty factor was kind of nice. $\endgroup$
    – Jihyun
    Mar 10, 2018 at 2:06
  • $\begingroup$ @TomMcW Any newer books that cover this subject? $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2018 at 3:26
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    $\begingroup$ @curious_cat I don't know. Even though it's from 2008 I'm curious to check out the one Jihyun mentioned $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Mar 10, 2018 at 3:55
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    $\begingroup$ The French side of Airbus was green with envy when Boeing reaped monopoly profits from their 747 and subsidized the direct competition to the A300 and A310. Therefore, they became determined to put themselves into Boeing's position and have the biggest aircraft around. All studies after that were done only to rationalize that desire. $\endgroup$ Mar 10, 2018 at 20:41

Keep in mind the A380 is a larger aircraft that can carry more people than the 747-8, which may explain some of the heavier weight. In a 3 class configuration, the A380 can seat 525 passengers, while the 747-8 in a 3 class configuration can carry 468 passengers.

When comparing Boeing and Airbus aircraft of similar size, the weights are roughly equivalent.

As for the 747... considering that it was originally designed in the mid 1960's, it has held up quite well. But, it's days are clearly numbered.

One reason that the 747 (and A340) are headed for obsolescence and A380 sales are flat, is the cost efficient large twin engine airliners, like the 777, 787, A330, and A350.

To establish a perspective, consider that the A380 program began around 1990. At that time, the big wide body twins weren't in operation, and the general consensus in the aircraft industry was that large airliners had four engines. The first wide body twin, the Boeing 777, entered service in 1995, and its operating efficiency wasn't really seen until the late 1990's, when A380 development was well under way.

Also, ETOPS certification had only been issued to twin engine airliners in 1988, (the A320 being one of the first to get the certification) meaning they were now certified for long distance over ocean flights. The changes that brought on (among many others, the demise of the triple wide bodies like the MD11 and L1011, whose third engine was added only to get over ocean certification) weren't obvious in 1990.

In the interim, the wide body twins have proven to be extremely cost efficient... to the point where one can operate two 787's for slightly less than one A380, while carrying the same number of passengers and having increased flexibility. In operation, the A380 needs to be nearly full to turn a profit... so being able to use two big twins instead gives the airline the option to simply drop one flight if passenger load is light, and save a bundle. Another advantage is being able to fly smaller groups of people directly to smaller airports, while the huge size of the A380 tends to confine it to major hub airports.

One bet that Airbus made with the A380, being able to move a large number of people with a single berth and single takeoff/landing cycle at a major hub airport to alleviate airport overcrowding (with aircraft, not people), hasn't panned out.

I suspect a bit of hubris might have played a role, however minor. Airbus had lived in the shadow of the giant 747 for decades. Building something larger probably involved some pride. Not a major factor, but pride in having the largest might have made the profitability forecasts appear a bit rosier than they actually were. Yes, the aircraft industry is definitely male dominated.

Is Boeing more astute? Not all of their decisions have worked out. They (and the US government) spent a fortune on the 2707 supersonic transport, before abandoning it. It is likely that Boeing will take a 1 billion dollar write-off on the 747-8 due to poor sales (only 51 were delivered for passenger service), though that pales in comparison to the 25 billion Airbus spent (and probably will never recover) on the A380. Boeing ditched the 757, not long before that size aircraft became very popular (the A320 filled the need, and picked up a lot of sales). Their performance in the Joint Strike Fighter competition in 2000 (that produced the F35) wasn't so good, the delta wing design proved unsuitable for carrier operations. And, the airliner Boeing proposed when the A380 was announced, the beautiful Sonic Cruiser with it's high speed (Mach .98), was stillborn when airlines expressed a preference for lower operating cost over higher speed.

This article suggests that the Sonic Cruiser might have simply been a red herring... not sure how accurate that is, but it does make for interesting reading.

It is unfortunate for Airbus that the big twin airliner put the four engine airliner in general on the road to obsolescence, after they had invested a fortune in the development of the A380.

But, absent hindsight, that may not have been obvious in the early 1990's.

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    $\begingroup$ You may want to tweak the sentence, "The first wide body twin, the Boeing 777..." since the A300 was actually the first wide body twin, albeit not as large as the 777. $\endgroup$
    – cjs
    Mar 11, 2018 at 14:41

From a technical aspect.. the A380 was a fresh design to fit a wider mission profile. The B747-8 had to make do with an updated platform.

Stategically.. Boeing saw the future in more point-to-point routes rather than the hub and spoke system used by most airlines at the time. Who is correct? Well the A380 sold ok but those airlines that need them already have them and the growth of the market is pretty flat. Whereas the demand for aircraft like the 787 and A350 will only expand as demand increases.

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    $\begingroup$ They are both suited for hub and spoke networks, Boeing only believes that you should increase frequency instead of capacity on a given flight leg. This is possible on most OD-pairs, but a few European airports have run out of slots so they only way to increase capacity to that airport is to increase the size of the aircraft as there are no slots available for an increase in frequency. $\endgroup$ Mar 9, 2018 at 8:29

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