Every Airbus A380 in the world is grounded — except for one airline

May 8, 2020

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Editor’s note: Since the publication of this story, we’ve heard from readers telling us that, with China restricting commercial flights to foreign countries to only one airline per week, China Southern is operating A380s to meet demand from Chinese nationals looking to return. 

There are 237 Airbus A380s in the fleets of the world’s airlines. The biggest passenger jets ever, which can carry more people than any plane, have been a staple of long-haul travel since the late 2000s. But not anymore.

Now they are all grounded, rendered useless by the precipitous drop in travel demand this year due to the coronavirus crisis. The sight of huge double-deckers parked in the desert, dwarfing smaller planes and just as unable to fly profitably, is a perfect visual summation of the airline industry’s current troubles.

An Australian photographer captured poignant sunset images of Singapore Airlines A380s awaiting better days in Alice Springs, and posted them on Facebook.

Some $5billion worth of Aircraft from around the world now being holed up in the desert near Alice Springs due to COVID-19 travel downturn

Posted by Steve Strike on Sunday, May 3, 2020

The world’s A380s are all parked for storage — except five, all belonging to China Southern Airlines, the largest airline in Asia.

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According to flight-tracking sites, China Southern is still sending A380s to Europe, North America and Australia, on regularly scheduled flights. Since China is barring foreigners from entering the country and leisure travel worldwide has essentially stopped, those A380s may be filled with cargo more than passengers. After all, using passenger jets as freighters is one way that airlines try to make money these days, as revenue has dried up.

That’s a somewhat ironic development, since China Southern is not — unlike, say, Emirates — a happy A380 customer, and even before the crisis was finding it hard to turn a profit on its A380 flights. “The A380’s large size makes it challenging to profitably fill,” an aviation analyst told the South China Morning Post in 2015.  “At Emirates you have different economics since you have A380s feeding A380s for transfer traffic – that brings scale.”

In fact, when we sent our reviews intern to fly a China Southern A380 from Guangzhou to Los Angeles last year, he had the first-class cabin almost entirely to himself.

That Los Angeles route is one of the few where China Southern is using the double-decker giant. It also appears sporadically on flights from the airline’s Guangzhou home base to Amsterdam, Vancouver, Sydney and London. That’s a bizarre choice of destinations; China Southern has smaller long-haul aircraft that could cover these routes losing less money than a likely empty A380. Even if used as a cargo carrier, the A380 — built to maximize space for passengers, not freight — can haul less stuff in its cargo holds than a smaller Boeing 777.

But it does have a vast passenger cabin — the biggest around. That could come in handy when carrying boxes that do not need to go in the holds and can simply be fastened to seats, which is often the case with boxes containing masks and other protective equipment shipped from China.

A map from flight-tracking site Flightradar24 showed that on Friday morning, two China Southern flights were the only A380s airborne in the entire world. One was over Russia on the way home from Amsterdam; the other over the Philippines, headed to Australia.

Screenshot from Flightradar24

 

The A380, for all its wonders like onboard showers and bars, has not been a commercial success, and Airbus has decided to stop making it this year. There will be no more sold to airlines, and certainly not in China, where the big three carriers — Air China, China Eastern and China Southern itself — all went from making a profit to losing lots of money due to the traffic slump. China was never a big market for the A380, despite Airbus’ efforts to sell there. China Southern was the only customer to bite, and even then it bought just five.

And yet, today a country where the flagship product of Europe’s aircraft industry never made a splash is the only one where it is still flying. It’s another bizarre, unforeseen consequence of the pandemic that has turned so much of the world on its head.

Featured image: A China Southern A380 lands at LAX in April 2016. Photo by Alberto Riva / The Points Guy 

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