A380: In the skies...but for how much longer?
December 04 2019 07:39 PM
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Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

The Airbus A380 unlocked new potential in long-haul air travel. It’s the aircraft that’s enabled airlines to offer plush First Class suites onboard the jet, as well as bar and lounge areas while having seating accommodation for 500+ passengers. But while the aircraft is considered a passenger favourite for many — the same cannot be said for airline executives who are focused on the financial performance of each route.

Today, the A380 is increasingly perceived as ‘inefficient’, especially as lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft such as the A350 XWB secure their place in the air travel market. While most A380s in service are still considered young, airlines have either declared, or have started hinting on when they will withdraw the jets from the in-service fleet.

Here’s a round-up of who is still flying the A380, and if their retirement plans are already outlined…

Emirates is the world’s largest A380 operator, with over 100 in fleet. While the aircraft is still very much the backbone of its Dubai-based operations, Tim Clark, Emirates CEO has admitted that some A380s currently stored in the UAE will never fly again. “We have a few under retirement because we’ve got a major overhaul coming up and it’s best to take the old aircraft out – they’re all written down – and take the gear off them rather than buy a $25mn main landing gear. I need two, possibly three, to meet that requirement,” he explained. However, he has recently added that passengers should expect to continue to fly A380s on Emirates flights, ‘even in the 2030s’.

Less than 100 miles away, Etihad Airways — based in Abu Dhabi — were far more modest when ordering A380s. The airline currently has ten, and has no intentions on retiring the aircraft soon. However, given the carrier has a deficit of over $6bn following a string of financially-catastrophic investments, the airline is storing Airbus A350 jets in France, rather than having them delivered like nearly every other A350 customer.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, Qatar Airways have confirmed that the first A380 it took delivery of will be withdrawn from service on its tenth birthday, meaning 2024. The second will also follow at the ten year mark, and so on. Qatar intends to replace A380 routes with the A350-1000 and Boeing 777X.

Air France has a fleet of ten Airbus A380s, each based at Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport. Unlike the Gulf carriers who are sticking with the aircraft for at least another 5 years, Air France has said it will retire all superjumbos by 2022. In a statement, Air France said “The current competitive environment limits the markets in which the A380 can profitably operate. With four engines, the A380 consumes 20-25% more fuel per seat than new generation long-haul aircraft and therefore emits more CO2. Increasing aircraft maintenance costs, as well as necessary cabin refurbishments to meet customer expectations reduce the economic attractiveness of Air France’s A380s even further. Keeping this aircraft in the fleet would involve significant costs, while the aircraft programme was suspended by Airbus earlier in 2019.”

In the UK, British Airways, with 12 A380s, have no retirement plans for the aircraft and instead plan to use them as an aircraft that will go on to replace the Boeing 747s on some routes.

German flag carrier, Lufthansa has already made plans to sell off six of the 14 A380s aircraft it has in fleet. The airline will gradually withdraw A380s upon the arrival of Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, and more Airbus A350-900 jets — demonstrating that smaller, efficient, twin-engined jets really are replacing the superjumbo, despite lacking in onboard passenger capacity.

Japan’s ANA operates the youngest A380 fleet, the first of which was delivered just this year. The airline is continuing to use the jet to connect Japan and Hawaii, arguably one of the most unique A380 routes on earth — and, as you can imagine — it has no plans for retirement, given they’re still set to receive more from Airbus before production ends.

Asiana Airlines, with six A380 aircraft, is set to announce a schedule of A380 retirement next year, amid worsening financials. For some airlines, a jet with four engines is considered a gas-guzzling aircraft, and if Asiana are set to return to the black soon, they’ll want to be operating more efficient aircraft.

Like Asiana, Korean Air continues to operate its fleet of 10 A380s as normal, but the airline hasn’t outlined any retirement and is instead using the aircraft on some routes that were previously flown by the 777.

China Southern, the only airline in the world to use the A380 domestically on routes including Beijing-Guangzhou, has used the superjumbo to bolster its South-China hub. The carrier has no retirement plans for the A380.

Bangkok-based Thai Airways operates its A380s on long-haul routes, including on the Kangaroo route, connecting Europe with Australia. The airline has not signalled plans for retirement, but that could change if there is a shake-up at the airline, given the flag carrier’s ongoing financial struggles.

Malaysia Airlines has had a love-hate relationship with its six A380s. Not only has the airline attempted to get rid of all six, but it was one of the first to begin grounding and then dismantling a brand new A380 as the carrier couldn’t afford to order in spare parts from Airbus. The airline continues to own the A380s, but the majority of its international, scheduled services were cancelled — and instead the aircraft is used for lease-arrangements, including recently for Thomas Cook Airlines repatriation flights.

With 12 superjumbos in its fleet, including recently refurbished jets with brand new cabins, Qantas plans to keep using the A380 for another 10 years, CEO Alan Joyce told media during the summer.

Singapore Airlines, the launch operator of the superjumbo, originally had a fleet of 12 A380s. In a blow to Airbus, the carrier was among the first to start retiring the aircraft, with the first one taken out of service in 2017. The airline has since confirmed that it plans to eventually replace all A380 routes with other jets, such as the A350 — but it won’t be for a while.

*The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir




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