The double-deck aircraft design is a prominent feature of both the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380, allowing airlines to accommodate premium passengers with maximum comfort or pack in as many as 500 (theoretically up to 800) passengers across two levels. Despite this, neither manufacturer is currently producing super jumbos. Recently, Boeing delivered the final 747, which was a cargo aircraft, effectively bringing an end to the double-deck production era. This begs the question: can we expect to see similar aircraft in the future? Let’s delve into this topic.
The Evolution of Double-Deck Passenger Aircraft
The distinction between cargo and passenger decks on an aircraft is important to clarify before delving into the history of double-deck passenger aircraft. While all aircraft have a deck for cargo beneath the passenger deck, we are specifically discussing aircraft with two passenger decks in addition to the cargo deck.
In the 1970s, as air travel grew in popularity, the demand for larger aircraft to transport more passengers across longer distances also increased. This led to airports becoming congested and limited in their take-off and landing slots, which were sometimes auctioned off for millions of dollars. In response, airlines sought out larger aircraft that could carry more passengers and travel farther distances.
Boeing answered this demand with the introduction of the 747 in 1970, featuring an upper deck that was initially a by-product of its original design. Decades later, Airbus entered the market with the Airbus A380, boasting even greater passenger capacity. These double-deck aircraft provided airlines with the ability to accommodate more passengers, offer greater comfort for premium passengers, and improve overall efficiency.
Tale of the Two Iconic Double-Deck Passenger Aircraft
The Boeing 747, famously known as the “Queen of the Skies,” revolutionized air travel by enabling airlines to offer non-stop trans-oceanic flights and connect people across vast distances. Its development cemented Boeing’s position as a top industry leader in commercial aviation. The airplane’s iconic features, such as the upper deck seating and signature hump, captivated passengers and operators for generations. Over the years, Boeing has continued to refine the original design, introducing newer models like the 747-400 in 1988 and the final 747-8 model in 2005, all of which offered unparalleled operating economics and efficiency for both travel and air cargo markets.
At the time of its arrival, the Airbus A380 faced a significant challenge as it entered the market of outdated four-engine double-decker aircraft that couldn’t compete with the superior efficiency of smaller two-engine widebodies such as the Boeing 787s, and the Airbus A330s and A350s. Although the A380 quickly became a globally recognized symbol, being adopted by several airlines worldwide, particularly Emirates, it failed to achieve the same success as Boeing’s 747 family. Airbus delivered only slightly over 250 A380s, which pales in comparison to the once-anticipated 1,000 or more. In contrast, Boeing delivered more than 1,500 Queens of the Skies.
But what is the problem with the second deck?
Aircraft with a second level have a design issue as they tend to add significant weight and offer less floor space than their lower-deck counterparts. As fuel costs represent a considerable portion of an airline’s operating expenses, swapping such aircraft with lighter models could result in substantial cost savings. The smaller size of the upper deck usually means that fewer passengers can be accommodated, resulting in lower revenue for airlines. Therefore, airlines that operate aircraft with a second level may only experience a marginal revenue boost in comparison to those that operate larger single-deck aircraft.
The upper deck of an aircraft is not well-suited for cargo operations, which explains why the cargo version of the Airbus A380 was not successful. It also accounts for why the initial designs of the Boeing 747 freighter did not include an extended upper deck like their passenger counterparts.
The upper deck of an aircraft is not optimized for transporting cargo, which is why the cargo variant of the Airbus A380 failed to gain traction. Similarly, the original designs of the Boeing 747 freighter did not feature an elongated upper deck like their passenger counterparts, due to this limitation.
Are we going to see another double-deck aircraft?
The Airbus A380 has been retired, and the Boeing 747 is now mostly favored by cargo operators. In summary, there is no practical need to incorporate a second deck in aircraft design when a lighter single deck option can efficiently fulfill the job requirements.
Although airlines still struggle to secure landing slots, it has become apparent that double-decker aircraft are suitable for only a handful of crucial routes. Even Emirates, a staunch advocate of the A380, is planning to transition to single-deck aircraft in the future. Considering the current market conditions, it is highly improbable that any manufacturer would be willing to invest the substantial resources (including billions of dollars) required to bring such an aircraft to the market.
What about a double-decker aircraft with two engines?
What if there was a double-decker aircraft that featured just two engines? That sounds appealing, doesn’t it? Airbus seemed to think so too. In 2013, six years after the first A380 was introduced, the European aircraft manufacturer applied for a patent for a double-decker aircraft with two engines.
Despite the intriguing concept, no company has progressed beyond the theoretical stage in developing a double-decker, two-engine widebody aircraft. Such a project would undoubtedly take several decades to complete and come with staggering costs that could easily amount to billions of dollars (as with the A380, and even smaller widebody aircraft like the Boeing 777X). While the idea of a double-decker, two-engine aircraft may capture our imagination, it is highly improbable that it will ever come to fruition. Meanwhile, the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 will continue to soar across the globe for many years to come, providing a majestic double-decker experience.