Gloves off! The A380 vs 747

By Nick Bates

The "Queen of the Skies"-the 747 - is effectively euthanised after an approximately half-century lifespan. As she trundles gracefully into the current cloud of social media memes and images, her history is worth revisiting.

Photo © wikipedia

To add Jet A1 colour to this story, let's check out our Queen's nemesis, the Airbus A380 …also on a similar sad glidepath for its finals to the graveyard.

Photo © wikipedia

Introduction into service.
Boeing's 747 first entered service (Pan Am) in January 1970 while the A380 made its first commercial appearance with Singapore Airlines 37 years later in October 2007. Airbus will continue offering the A380 until 2021. Boeing has closed its order book and will complete manufacture and delivery of a handful of models still on order within the next year or so. The latest dates completion of orders for 747 point towards 2022.

Interestingly, the United States will replace the legacy presidential aircraft-the VC-25A Air Force One jets-with a new variant of the Boeing 747-8 known as the VC-25B.

Development costs per aircraft

747 Final assembly.

: Boeing quotes US$7,4bn in today's currency. This excludes the many variants.

A380 Final assembly.

A380: US$25bn (with US$5bn of this total attributed to the wonky wiring harness).

Hatch and Dispatch
First commercial flight: January 22, 1970, Pan Am New York to London.
Total built: 1968 (16 outstanding).
End of production: 2022.
Lifespan: effective 52 years.

First commercial flight: 25 October, 2007, SQ380 Singapore-Sydney.
Total built: 251 (not yet completed).
End of production: 2021.
Lifespan: 14 years.

By volume alone, the A380 is some 40% larger than the 747, a clear winner in the heavyweight corner. Along with its MTOW, the 747 is a pushover: 575 tonnes vs. 412 tonnes. In nerdspeak, the difference between the two in pure mass is more than the total amount of fuel 747 carries on a long-haul flight.

Cost per seat per hour as at 2005
Boeing 747: approximately US$90.
A380: US$50.
For the figure-inclined reader

These figures indicate that the A380 is far more economical than the 747. Factor in the extra 109 seats and the A380 is clearly also more efficient. The A380 range is likewise greater.

Incidents and accidents
Given new technologies, fail-safe systems, state-of-the-art construction, length of service etc, the A380 safety record is outstanding. Sadly, the 747 gets a bloody nose in this mammoth bout, with the Helderberg disaster in all our memories. The web is full of figures, too many and too boring to carry here.

In addition to the numbers, one interesting fact helps differentiate the two - user-friendly airports.

An A380 on the apron connected to an airbridge.

A 747 on the apron connected to an airbridge.

Google lists 140 airports that are A380-friendly as against some 200 offering open aprons for the 747 …hard to believe. However, the costs that governments and, typically, ACSA, have spent on upgrading facilities to accommodate the A380 must be considered. Will these costs ever be amortised, given the traffic that has passed through these facilities in the past and the few remaining years that the A380 will utilise them?

Similarly, if an A380 needs to divert …where to? Anywhere, you might say, but what about debussing, take-off once repaired/serviceable? Also, there's the basic runway itself: can it support the all-up weight of a fully laden A380?

This is how "Captain Nigel" commented as per the LIDO app.
On a JNB LHR sector the chart shows how few A380 airfields there are over Africa to use as a diversion airfield.

A380 diversions are a problem mainly due to the load-bearing strength of runways and taxiways and the large wingspan of the aircraft will not easily be accommodated at the terminal and gates.

The aircraft could be parked clear of the terminal and airport steps brought to the lower deck and busses used to disembark passengers.

As the flight progresses north the only suitable A380 diversion airfields are Cairo and then Barcelona!

We spoke to another pilot whom we'll call "Captain Nigel Mk II". He's flown both models for a large airline and penned this for Pilot's Post, pointing to some fundamental differences he thought relevant. With some 20 000 hours in his logbook, he's more than qualified to draw some interesting comparisons.

"This is like asking what is the difference between the universally loved, long-serving London Routemaster bus and the Federation of Planets Galaxy Class Starship Enterprise.

Most of the points that follow are factual. In places I have expressed a personal opinion.

A typical 747 economy class layout.

A typical 747 business class layout.

Hands down, the 747 wins on the lateral design leap Boeing made with the location of the cockpit. It's an icon of aviation. Hardly anyone would fail to recognise it. It has an elegance which has evaded almost all other types. Passengers who flew first class loved its private cabin (even though the seats are narrow) and the pilots loved flying it, in part because it just did what it was supposed to do day-day in, day out-keeping flying with the comfort of significant system redundancy.

A typical 747 crew restroom.

It has a private toilet for the pilots and a couple of basic bunks in the cockpit, which at the time it was designed, were probably perceived to be equivalent to the revolution in UK housing which saw each dwelling fitted with a "privvy" and a place for everyone to put their heads.

A typical A380 economy class layout.

A typical A380 business class layout.

A typical A380 crew restroom.

The Enterprise is from a different era. However, one glaring omission is that it (like most Airbuses) does not have auto engine anti-ice. I have no idea why, but you would think that this should be there as a basic necessity. More strangely, given its bulk, only the inboard engines boast thrust reversers. Whether this was to save costs or mass, or both, is debatable. Anyway, on to its good points.

Firstly Airbuses, in general, are neater machines with more precise philosophies. They benefit from excellent flight laws and protections compared to the 747. Through the automation interface (Mode Control Panel - Boeing; FCU or Flight Control Unit - Airbus), the Airbus keeps everything tidy. Push for plane, pull for pilot. If the plane has control, the interface windows are blank and you use the PFD, ND & FMAs to maintain your SA (Situational Awareness). There is none of this nonsense of continuing to turn the heading bug, or remembering to have to press LNAV after a "direct to" in the FMS (Flight Management System). The Airbus knows you want to go direct so it does it.

Also, of course, all modern Airbuses have the side stick which means pilots have a table. Boeing, even on its fly-by-wire aircraft, is still providing the pilot with a 30 kg mouse between his legs.

So specifically, what does the Enterprise have which the Routemaster doesn't?
Pax and cabin crew comfort;
Cavernous with wide aisles;
Extremely quiet. Especially on the upper deck, pax are frequently unaware that the aircraft is airborne;
Impressive theatre staircase which is clearly an indulgent hallmark of this aircraft;
Showers on board (operator-dependent). The forward upper decks toilets are bigger than some family bathrooms; and
Suite of twelve bunks underfloor for cabin crew.
Sadly, only one extra jump seat in the cabin, so fairly restrictive when trying to get staff passengers on board (the 747 had 5 in the cabin!)

Pilot Comfort
Electric cockpit seats - 747 has manual;
Silent cockpit in flight - 747 sounds like someone has left a window open;
Silent cockpit on ground - no distracting fan noise. It really is 'silent';
Private toilet;
Two superbly acoustically insulated, private and separate bunk rooms with chair, bunk, temp and lighting control and IFE;
A privacy door between the bunk/toilet area and the cabin;
A selection of well-positioned integrated sun visors; and
Spacious flight deck with capacity for five crew seats.

The 747 cockpit.

Pilot Interface
A full qwerty keyboard built into the table enables comprehensive messaging;
A fabulous "track ball"-driven FMS with three secondary flight plans, multiple ADS monitoring, intuitive functions etc. Even Boeing's latest aircraft, the 787, still uses the same FMS design. Yes, it has a track pad and more memory but it still has all of the clumsy functions of the 747 FMS (Flight management system). Airbus took a different view. They threw away the FMGC in the small 'buses' and created a stunning MFD (Multi-Function Display) which is the FMS, Comms and a lot of other stuff too. You could put a 747 pilot in an A380 seat at top of climb out of LHR and tell him to fly to LAX. He would figure out how to get his oceanic clearance before the boundary and, provided nothing were to go wrong, he could fly the A380 to top of descent on the other side;

The A380 cockpit.

A fabulous ECL (electronic checklist). If the pilot follows this religiously and resists the temptation to go "off piste" the outcome will invariably be good. The ECL is so good that the QRH ( Quick Reference Handbook) only has nine pages including the covers. Essentially, it is a paper backup for smoke/fire/fumes; and an excellent electronic library and performance tool which interfaces with the electronic checklist.

The tech toys
Autobrake disconnect on landing - press the thrust lever autothrust button and the brakes disconnect without jerking;

Weather radar - this could be an MRI scanner if used in a hospital. Not only does it have tilt/gain/mapping as does the 747 but also an azimuth selector and a horizontal level filter. This means you can pick any molecule of air in front of the aircraft +/- approx. 45 degrees left/right of the nose and ask the radar if it's clear, if it's water, if it's turbulence, etc;

ROW/ROP - Runway Overrun Warning/Protection: the A380 constantly measures its kinetic energy on approach. If it thinks there is a risk of the plane not fitting in the available runway distance, it will generate various audible and visual warnings e.g. "If Wet use Max reverse", "Use Max Reverse", "Runway too Short";

BTV - Brake to Vacate. Using the ND (Navigation display) and the airport map (another features the 747 lacks, although the 787 does have a map), one can select the desired exit. The map displays a wet and dry line to assist the pilot in exit selection. Upon selection, the ND will display runway occupancy time with and without reverse selection. The BTV, coupled with the autobrake autothrust button, disconnect ensures smooth rollouts;

ETACS - the external cameras, as Airbus call them. The nose gear camera screen is superimposed with steering markers, which are a huge help; and
VSD - Vertical Situation Display (modern Boeings such as the 787 have this too).

Architecture and capability
The huge wing means the A380 can usually climb directly to FL350/FL360 despite weighing more than 500 tonnes at take-off;

That huge wing also means the approach speed is much lower, resulting in the A380 being a Cat C aircraft for speed purposes, whereas even the 787 is cat D;

Fuel pumps - there are twenty-five of these to handle which pump fuel longitudinally for C of G purposes, inboard on ground for wing weight-bending relief, outboard in flight for wing lift bending relief and inboard and outboard for fuel temperature control;

Hydraulics - there are two systems pressurised to 5 000 psi. However, because of local backup circuits at the point of use, the A380 can suffer a double hydraulic failure and still continue with its ocean crossing.

Double engine failure (same side) - commit height of just 500 ft. Aircraft, if heavy, might descend below 500 ft during gear retraction. However, it does not need to accelerate down the glideslope as does the 747.

Max T/O weight 569 tonnes and max landing 391 tonnes. It is possible to land up to 452 tonnes and, provided the landing is sufficiently smooth, six further landings can be performed without inspection. I have personally autolanded landed 03L at Johannesburg at 450 tonnes.

In short, both machines in their own airspace are valid championship contenders for the heavyweight title. When one considers all factors (once the romantic, technical and numeric values have been digested) both appear at the same flight level, but with totally different destinations plumbed into the avionics. One area that stands out is the bottom line: The R&D spent on the A380, along with its short life span, no doubt wrote billions off the Airbus (formerly EADS) bottom line vs. the "Queen's" illustrious career and profitability. No other aircraft has taken as many people to as many places for as many years as the 747. Some would phrase the love of the 747 as a high-flying romance, while the 747 probably brags a far greater number of Mile High Graduates too...

Sources: Factual data was gleaned from the worldwide web, with Wiki a major source. Financial data is cited in US$. This may not always be relevant in current terms as currencies fluctuate faster than lockdown policies, while those who input the original data did so before the dollar's depreciation and/or fluctuation.

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