A Commercial Aviation Consultancy

In the wake of Airbus “Pinocchio” advertisement critical of economic claims by Boeing, AirInsight has decided to take an independent look at the economics of these to aircraft and compare the aircraft.

While both aircraft are the largest in their respective fleets, we don’t see them as direct competitors, as they are in much different seat classes.  This is like comparing an A319 with a 737-900ER, or an 737-700 with the A321.  While both are in the same class – narrow-body trunk liners – they would not normally compete against each other in an airline competition.

In estimating operating economics, each manufacturer will utilize a different set of economic assumptions, normally those that optimize the performance of their aircraft against the competitor.  And because cost per available seat mile (CASM) is such an important metric for airline fleet planners, the manufacturers often play with seating configurations as well to provide an advantage for their aircraft.  Comparing A380 and 747-8 have substantial differences between the two manufacturers in their methodologies, which lead to markedly different results.

One of the key elements of our analysis was an independent look at seating configuration.  Each manufacturer provides a seat comparison using three-class service.  But unless you read beneath the headlines and examine the seat-pitch assumptions behind the claims, you may miss a key lesson in how the manufacturers “stretch” the truth in their economic analyses.  In this case, Boeing claims the 747-8 to accommodate 467 in its economic analyses versus 565 for the A380, and Airbus claims the comparison should be 405 to 525 using different seat pitch assumptions.  The only current operator of both, Lufthansa, configures its aircraft with large premium cabins, and offers 362 seats in the 747-8 and 526 in the A380, and perhaps best illustrates the significant difference in seating capacity between each type for an operator offering a consistent service level.

The underlying assumptions about seat pitch are markedly different between the manufacturers:

12-19-2012 7-55-52 AM

The difference is quite remarkable, particularly for Business Class seating in an era in which lay flat seats are becoming the international standard.

Boeing’s calculation of 467 seats in three classes for the 747-8i, shown in the diagram below, assumes 26 First Class seats with 61 inch pitch, 89 Business Class seats at 39 inch pitch, and 352 Economy seats at 32 inch pitch.   Using the same seat pitch standards, except for 48 inches in Business Class, Boeing calculates 565 seats for A380 using the same assumptions, but a more generous 48 inches for Business Class.

12-19-2012 7-56-40 AM

Airbus, by contrast, calculates 525 seats for the A380, using 10 First Class seats at 81 inch pitch, 84 Business Class at 61 inch pitch, and 431 Economy at 32 inch pitch.  Applying those to the 747-8, the result would be 405 seats for the 747-8 with seven First Class at 82 inches,  74 Business at 61 inches, and 324 Economy at 32 inches.

Clearly, the Airbus assumptions are more consistent with modern seat configurations at major airlines, and a comparison of 405 to 525 is more realistic.

12-19-2012 7-58-02 AM

A differential of 62 seats does have a significant impact on seat-mile economics, and illustrates one way in which the OEM’s tend to exaggerate their economic claims.  To gain a true picture, you need to look closely at the assumptions to avoid an “apples to oranges” comparison.

© 2012, Ernest S. Arvai. All rights reserved.

24 Responses to Comparing Very Large Aircraft: The A380 and 747-8

  • You started with the statement that A380 and 747-8i are apple and orange, “While both aircraft are the largest in their respective fleets, we don’t see them as direct competitors, as they are in much different seat classes.“.

    The A380 and the 747-8i has a significant range capability at their respective seating. The A380 is said to be a 8,500 nm aircraft and the other is about one flight hour shorter.

    The seating configuration for the marketing pitch is the direct consequence of the different targeted markets.
    Indeed, if you want to turn the apple to orange first, say by putting the A380 to the same seat standard of the 747-9i then the A380 will have either too many first and business class seats or they will have a lot of economy seats.

    The reality is that it is quite difficult to fill those seats, either first, business or economy seats especially during this time of crisis.

    I think the “real estate” offered by the A380 is just too big to be practical and hence the impossibility to turn it into orange, whereas as the 747-8i with a smaller floor area is a little bit more versatile.

    I agree that the existence of the last two quads in the industry will be quite difficult, but please do not forget the 747-8F that can help Boeing to keep the 747-8i on artificial life support.

    Ultimately, there can be only one.

    • Interesting in this context is that LH saw the need to pimp their -8i premium product
      with brand new upholstery. Was this done to balance customer interest against the A380?

      Apropos: Boeing seems to have defined the A380 to have 555 seats and not 565 seats as mentioned in the article?

    • VV, Boeing did not choose specific seat types suited to a targeted market in medium haul. Today, even a medium haul seat will probably come in above 50 inches. SQ uses a 60 inch cocoon on its regional A330 fleet.

      The reason Boeing uses these 1970s standard seats in its marketing for the 747 is because their product dates back to that era and all the rest of the 747 specs are at that standard. Theres nothing wrong with that if that makes their life easy. Its a bit out of date, but thats up to them.

      The problem comes when comparisons are made to another aircraft, without making sure that the seating standards are consistent. The point I was making on your blog was that by using the Airbus data at 525 seats and the Boeing data at 467 seats, like you have, there is no valid way to make any conclusion about the aircraft relative to each other.

      But with the credentials you claim for yourself, I find it hard to believe that you didn’t know that already.

      • It is obvious that the 747(-8) is a 70s product.
        But Boeing sells it into a 2012 market

        The 747 is not a VW beetle that you would perhaps
        buy for the nostalgic reminiscence.

  • It has been my believe the reason Boeing using those 20-30 year old seat specifications is for no other reason then to support their marketing slides, that mostly use per seat cost comparisons.
    http://leehamnews.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/b747va380.jpg

    It takes the average cabin engineer about 2-3 hours to create apple to apple seatcount comparisons for both aircraft. Using the same galley, lavatory and bar rates. However if you don’t like the resulting per seat cost numbers, better avoid it. Boeing has done so for many years.
    http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/general_aviation/read.main/2610589/

    Maybe the Pinocchio comparison is not entirely unjustified. However judge yourself. I wonder how the Boeing marketing staff feels about this. Clever? IMO they are damaging the credibility of a great Brand.

    • Agree with the above comments of it being an apples to oranges comparison. Those size choices are consistent with so many others in the wide body segment where each manufacturer tries to wiggle into the open space left in the market (ie B767, A330, B787, A350, B777). The only place the two manufacturers go head to head is in the narrow body market, and there is plenty of room there for both to succeed.

      Unfortunately for Airbus, the A380 is so large and heavy. It takes extreme confidence in a market to deploy the behemoth, not exactly easy to come by in today’s world. There is no freighter version to fall back on when the order book starts to get thin. The -8I does not share these problems at its size, but it does struggle to gain orders because the biggest twins (B777 and A350-1000) look quite attractive with only about 50-75 fewer seats and more cargo volume. I believe both programs will succeed, but neither will be cash cows like the more successful widebody twins are.

  • I don’t think the A380s size is its problem. Believe or not, it was specified this way, after extensive market research and the airlines knew exactly what they ordered and re-ordered. It set it apart for the foreseable future, serving the booming Asian megacities and replacing the hundreds of VLA’s in service during the last 40 yrs.

    Sales figures clearly showed the market preference for the 777-300ER over the A340-600. Sales figures also clearly show the market preference of the A380 over the 747-8i. Adding the 8F numbers in the comparison is non-sense.

  • First, I do believe they compete to a certain extent as BA’s VLA competition clearly pitted the B748i versus the A380. The same can be said (supposedly) of CX looking into VLA’s.

    Second, I do believe Boeing isn’t being really honest with its J-Class configuration. 39′ for J? C’mon – lets be reasonable here.

    We also can’t make an “apples-to-apples” comparison with LH either as their B748i and A388 run different missions and have different configurations.

    • If an airline wants to haul 500 passengers in a premium configuration over about 8000nm with no cargo, then the A380 is it. If that airline wants 400 pax in a premium configuration over the same distance with some cargo, nothing competes with the B748I. For the airline desiring about 300 seats and significant cargo, the B777-300ER is the hands down favorite. It’s pretty simple math until one starts reducing the distances, increasing the seating densities, and/or increasing frequency, then the equation becomes more complex as the A330 and B787 start to factor in as well.

  • Some time ago on this site I showed A380 can carry significant more cargo on flights e.g. NRT-LAX. At those flights cargo volume is no longer what matters, its payload-range restrictions.

    • Untrue keesje. NRT-LAX assuming full pax, the B748I will carry more cargo as a function of greater belly volume and fewer pax baggage. Neither aircraft would be payload – range restricted on that segment assuming standard pax densities in a premium configuration – approximately 400 and 500 Boeing to Airbus respectively. Sometimes your posts are nonsense.

      • I compared 450 seats for both. Payload range graphs clearly show the difference in payload left for cargo in that case. Saying the 747-8i take ” more cargo” only works with a specific set of “apples vs oranges” assumptions like we saw before.

        • That’s a silly comparison. No airline I’m aware of will put 450 seats in a 748I. But even if they did, the Boeing would still carry more cargo assuming MTOW 453T. It will also burn less fuel in this scenario, approximately 130T assuming a 12 hour flight. How much would the A380 burn? Not sure of the exact number, but it is most assuredly more while carrying less cargo. That’s a bad example for Airbus. You’re better off sticking to a seat cost advantage based on 100 more seats. Of course, that assumes those seats can be filled which is a big assumption for most airlines these days.

          • Unneccesary to do estimates, both 747-8i and A380 payload range diagrams are published. If one states one carries more cargo then the other, one has to keep the rest of the payload the same otherwise you are taking the public for a ride.

          • Keesje,
            What is the MTOW you are using for the Intercontinental? If it’s not 447T or 453T, then you are the one taking the public for a ride with dated info…

            It is a fact that the B748I has 26% more cargo volume than the A380. So I’m not sure how the Intercontinental carries less cargo on a mission that is not payload – range limited.

  • Scratch, because people say CX considers both aircraft I took HKG-LAX.

    http://leehamnews.wordpress.com/2012/11/28/comparing-the-747-8i-and-the-a380-after-the-advertising-battle-commenced/

    I looked at cargo load for the 747-8i and A380 HKG-LAX, HKG-LAX is about 6300NM

    http://www.gcmap.com/mapui?P=hkg-lax&MS=wls&DU=nm

    Looking at payload range:
    http://i15.photobucket.com/albums/a357/thezeke/range%20payload/4fe7e300.png

    It becomes clear that if both aircraft carry 450 passengers (100kg/pax+luggage), the 747-8 can carry about 30t of cargo and the A380 can carry about 46t.

    About 50% more then the 747-8, not something I would expect looking at Boeings ad, claiming “30% more cargo”.http://leehamnews.files.wordpress.com/2012/11/747-8_2.jpg

    On this flight the 747-8 would have more cargo volume, but it would be empty volume.

    For reference a 777-300ER will be seriously payload restricted on this flight and carry less then 20t.
    http://www.boeing.com/commercial/startup/pdf/777_payload.pdf

    It seems a A340-600 can carry significantly more cargo then a 777-300ER on routes like these.(e.g. 15k lbs on HKG-SFO), but burns 7k lbs more fuel.
    http://www.aircraft-commerce.com/sample_articles/sample_articles/flight_operations_sample.pdf

    Anyway, as I said before, its hard to compete with the large fleet of old, stuffed, cheap cargo 747s making a fuel stop at Anchorage, flying to the right cargo places, at the right times.

    • Keesje – Let’s ignore the fact that CX would place around 400 seats in a perspective 748I, and that they would place closer to 500 in a prospective A380. Let’s also assume your figures are correct that the A380 carries 16T more cargo than the 748I on the HKG-LAX route with 450 pax onboard. The question becomes… How much more fuel than the 748I does the A380 burn to carry that extra 16T? We know the trip costs are significantly greater for the A380. After all, we are flying an aircraft 100T heavier at MTOW to carry an extra 16T cargo. Right? So which aircraft do you think CX will chose for this example? Pretty simple math…

      Airbus fans love to poke fun at the 748I because it looks like the old 1970s aircraft, but the truth is that its wings and engines are the most advanced in commercial aviation today, just like the 787. Would a clean sheet design be better? Of course it would, but it does not need to be to fill the market segment of a 400 seat long hauler and heavy freighter.

      Keesje – I’m not going to address the A340 / 777 example because that ship has sailed. The marketplace chose the winner. One assembly line is humming, and the other is shuttered. Game over.

  • “So which aircraft do you think CX will chose for this example? Pretty simple math…”
    Yes, lets wait for that. CX will do its own calculation and reach a conclusion. At that point Boeing fans will again conclude Airbus did them an offer they couldn’t refuse :|

    “Airbus fans love to poke fun at the 748I because it looks like the old 1970s aircraft, but the truth is that its wings and engines are the most advanced in commercial aviation today, just like the 787.”

    I think Boeing wouldn’t agree and would do it differently if they had the chance.
    http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2016583947_inpersonfitzgerald24.html

    The 787 wing also has its history.
    http://seattletimes.com/html/businesstechnology/2009381335_787flaw250.html

    • Keesje – Both aircraft will be offered at very steep discounts. So I wouldn’t be surprised by either, or neither. The 748I offers more compatibility with the existing infrastructure (pilots, engineers, parts, sims, training, etc) and fits better than the A380 with CX’s frequency model. On the other hand, CX does fly freighters to most of the destinations an A380 would go to for CX. So it’s conceivable that the lack of cargo space could be covered by dedicated freighters.

  • “One assembly line is humming, and the other is shuttered. Game over.”
    - that assembly line is cranking out 10 airframes a month as we speak.

    “The 748I offers more compatibility with the existing infrastructure (pilots, engineers, parts, sims, training, etc) and fits better than the A380 with CX’s frequency model.”
    - I think the industry fears the 747-8i will be an Odd Ball fleet in 10 years with limited residual value, it is hampering sales.

    During the last 5 years, I feared LH might at some point call it a day for this reason and convert them into -8F’s (replacing MD11s) but it didn’t happen. Apparently they covered their risk position.

    • LH who helped with the overhaul design for the 747 stated that the new -8 variant was well under powered for the extra size of the aircraft
      so adding this into an equation surely means the -8 is a false economy and is a wolf in sheeps clothing 1970′a clothing!!!!

    • I thought 340s are no longer produced. More than 1200 777s have been delivered vs less than 300 340s, so what are you talking about? See article from AW-Delays A350-900, Terminates A340 “The company also announced that it is terminating the A340 program, which has not seen any sales recently. All of the 246 Airbus A340-200s and -300s are delivered. Airbus lists 133 orders and 129 deliveries for the A340-500/600 program.”
      Game over indeed, market chose the winner.

  • One obvious way to compare the economics of the two planes is on the operating cost per square foot of passenger deck space. Airlines can fill the deck area with anything they want, but each one has a known, fixed amount of deck area to work with.

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