The A380 frightened airline financial chiefs long before the pandemic. But faced with a global crisis, and with air travel demand shattered by storm Covid-19, most airlines are quite clear on the future of this jet: There isn’t one.
Ultimately, the risk of failing to sell so many seats is just too high, and this has always left the A380 as the ‘white elephant’ of the worldwide commercial fleet.
The switch in the aviation world towards smaller, more efficient aircraft (such as the Boeing’s 787 or Airbus A350) will drive pandemic recovery – but we’re not there yet.
However, while the chances of all of the now-grounded A380 returning to the skies over the coming years is now zero, some airlines expect to return the superjumbo to commercial service – either because they’re stuck with too many of them (think: Emirates), or because it may make sense for certain airlines, on certain routes, with only a handful of A380s (think: Qantas).
“We think we will reactivate all of the A380s. We spent a lot of money on them,” Australia’s Qantas chief executive officer Alan Joyce said at a CAPA Live virtual conference last week. “Once demand is there, they’re going to be good aircraft.” The Australian airline grounded all 12 of its four-engined behemoths in June, saying they’d be useless for at least three years.
Elsewhere, Lufthansa has warned that its A380s may never fly again, and Air France-KLM said last year it would phase its fleet out early.
Air France had planned on retiring its A380 fleet by 2022, but the airline has now confirmed they will never fly the superjumbo again — an early grounding amid the pandemic.
Klaus Froese, head of Lufthansa’s Frankfurt base, as saying “In Frankfurt, the chance that we will again operate any A380 is close to zero. That’s all but decided. In Munich we will have to see. Planning is very difficult in these times.”
Joyce is more upbeat on the world’s largest jetliner, saying Wednesday the speed of vaccinations in the UK and the US, both major markets for Qantas, bode well for a rebound in passenger traffic on those routes. Qantas’s international business is currently burning through around A$5mn ($3.8mn) a week.
And even if international demand returns earlier than expected, A380s will still require a reactivation period of three to six months, at least.
In Doha, Qatar Airways Group CEO Akbar al-Baker said “Qatar Airways is parking its 10 A380s and they will not return for at least a year, and maybe never.” In July 2020, Qatar Airways released analysis showing that its A380s emitted 95% more carbon dioxide per block-hour on its Melbourne, New York and Toronto routes than its A350s, and an average of 80% more across all services.
Al-Baker described the A380 as “one of the worst aircraft, when it comes to emissions, that is flying around today”.
Singapore Airlines said they will have a total of 12 A380s in the future. Singapore Airlines added: “We are reviewing the potential shape and size of our network over the longer term given Covid-19 and its impact on our passenger traffic and revenue, which will provide better clarity on the fleet size and mix that the group will need”.
Of the 233 A380s that were in service around the world on January 1, 2020, just 23 were operating on March 31, 2021.
British Airways chief executive Sean Doyle said in March that the A380 “works very well in a number of larger markets”. The type is therefore “an important part of our fleet, and at the minute our plans are to obviously fly it again” he explained.
British Airways’ 12 A380s had been deployed to destinations including Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Singapore, prior to the crisis.
Back in Australia, Joyce added another benefit to resuming A380 operations. “If you’ve ever been in LA between 10pm and midnight, you see six or seven Qantas aircraft departing for Australia, because it’s the only time that works with curfews,” he says.
“So, instead of flying multiple frequencies right on top of each other, an A380 that’s fully or nearly fully written down, if it generates cash, will absolutely work.”
China Southern said in April that it is reviewing the future of its A380s amid concerns about the slow recovery of international travel, citing the type’s excessive size and high operating costs. For Japan’s ANA, the airline took delivery of its third and final A380 in October last year and immediately placed it into storage.
In Bangkok, Thai Airways’ restructuring of the airline is likely to see A380s removed from Thai’s fleet permanently. The carrier was just recently “gauging market interest” in the acquisition of two of its superjumbos — with no public interest declared.
The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir