The biggest passenger jet in the world is another casualty of the pandemic

Mar 14, 2020

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated as airlines have grounded more Airbus A380s.

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing airlines to rethink how they manage their fleets, and it has turned the biggest passenger jet in the world into another casualty of COVID-19.

That the Airbus A380 was not long for this world is not exactly news; it is already known that Airbus will close the assembly line next year at the latest. But the pandemic will likely hasten the end for many A380s in service with the world’s airlines.

The drop in demand for air travel has pushed some airlines to ground, at least temporarily, the giant jet. The double-decker is just too big. With 500 seats on average, depending on how airlines configure the interiors, it’s too expensive to operate when most of those seats would be empty.

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The first to take action was Lufthansa. Europe’s biggest legacy airline said over the last weekend that it would ground its entire fleet of 14 A380s. Australian airline Qantas was next, saying it would stop flying most of its A380s, leaving just four in active service and using smaller Boeing 787s instead.

Then came the news that Korean Air and Asiana Airlines would temporarily stop flying their A380s, Airlineroute reported. And after that, Bloomberg reported on Thursday that Emirates, the biggest operator of the A380, has grounded 20 of them and is looking to defer the deliveries of the last eight it has on order.

With the current state of the air transport industry, it’s difficult to predict whether all of the 58 A380s we know are grounded, as of Sunday, will return to service when demand picks up. That’s about 25% of all A380s flying today.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

The downturn in air traffic due to the virus may have exacerbated the short-term outlook for the A380, but its demise was already looming. For most airlines, it’s too much airplane. Why fly a 500-seater when you can fly two 250-seaters cheaper on the same routes?

According to an internal Lufthansa memo seen by German aviation news site, the airline has been filling only about 35% of the seats on its A380s. That means the giant planes went out on long-haul routes with just 180 seats occupied on average. Any other jet in the Lufthansa long-haul fleet could have covered those flights, and leaving a lot of free seats. So the A380s will stay grounded until at least May, the memo said.

Related: Coronavirus flight waivers and changes  

Air France saw the writing on the wall before everybody else. Last year, even as airlines were doing just fine and traffic and profits were good, the French flag carrier said it would cut its A380s and replace them with smaller but more financially viable jets. We can now say that Benjamin Smith, who decided to do away with the A380s soon after he took over in 2018 as CEO of Air France-KLM, was a prescient leader.

Yet, even as the A380 has turned into a headache for the finance departments of airlines, crews and most passengers tend to be fans. While some A380 layouts aren’t very comfortable or modern — like Air France’s disappointing economy and business class — the double-decker often delivers a spectacular passenger experience in premium classes. You won’t find a shower or first-class “apartments,” much less an actual bar with a bartender, on any other plane.

The good news for passengers loyal to the A380 is that even if all of the currently grounded planes will never fly again, there will still be around 200 in service worldwide, most of them with Emirates. So, when air travel recovers after the coronavirus crisis, you’ll still be able to enjoy the 10 things that make the A380 a unique airplane.

Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg

Featured photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images

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