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The Airbus A380 might be back from the dead — but for how long?

June 10 2022
6 min read
British Airways Airbus A380-800 aircraft with registration G-XLEK landing at London Heathrow International Airport
The Airbus A380 might be back from the dead — but for how long?
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The future of the Airbus A380 looked bleak at British Airways in mid-2020.

Like much of the airline's fleet, the superjumbo — a favorite of AvGeeks and passengers alike — was parked during the initial phase of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was entirely possible the plane would never return to service. The writing seemed to be on the wall when, in July 2020, the airline announced it would retire its entire fleet of Boeing 747-400s — the so-called Queen of the Skies.

In the following months, travel remained depressed, and BA's long-haul fleet was exclusively operated by the Airbus A350, and the Boeing 777 and 787.

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However, vaccines became available, and travelers began to slowly but surely return to the skies. Maybe there was a place in BA's fleet for the 469-seat behemoth after all. Maybe it wouldn't face a similar fate as the 747 fleet.

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After the U.S. announced it was finally reopening its borders to most international travelers, including those from the UK, BA made an announcement of its own.

"British Airways to welcome back its A380 as it launches its biggest schedule since March 2020," read the Oct. 6, 2021, press release.

The A380 was back at BA. As of this month, the airline is on the verge of returning the final two of its 12 superjumbos back to service.

During the pandemic, British Airways stored some A380s at Hamad International Airport (DOH) in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

It's a happy ending to what could have been another sad consequence of the pandemic — another airline retiring yet another beloved fleet of aircraft.

This story of the A380 is not unique to BA; many other airlines made the same decisions regarding the massive plane. Although it was parked during the depths of the pandemic, the A380 is slowly on its way back.

In June 2019, there were 230 active A380s globally, according to Cirium Fleets Analyzer. The following June, there were just six (all of which were operated that month by China Southern). By June 2021, the recovery had slowly but surely begun, as there were 31 active A380s. As of this month, there are 105 active A380s, with 138 still in storage.

Now, as airlines face delivery delays for new aircraft (and perhaps regret the retirement of other aircraft during the height of the pandemic), the A380 has again become a go-to for high-density, long-haul missions — despite high fuel costs.

More: On board the first post-pandemic British Airways A380 flight

Some operators have bemoaned the relative inefficiency of four-engine aircraft in the past decade as more efficient twin-engine aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350, have entered the market. However, there is still an upside to operating the A380, said Henry Harteveldt, an airline industry analyst and president of Atmosphere Research.

"Operating the 380 means that — especially in this high fuel environment — it allows an airline to carry more people on a single departure and to use one crew," Harteveldt told TPG in an interview. "So maybe you're able to consolidate what would normally be two flights into one perhaps, or just get that much more lift in and out of your hub or on a key route — the 380 may be able to prove it itself as being very valuable."

Surely, the future of the A380 is different depending on the airline. At Emirates, which operates the largest fleet (120) of A380s, the aircraft is a part of the airline's brand and has a secure future. In December, the carrier took delivery of the last A380 produced, practically guaranteeing that the plane will be a part of its fleet for years to come.

Earlier this year, the Middle Eastern carrier released an advertisement featuring the A380 circling Dubai's Burj Khalifa. A flight attendant stands on top as an A380 in a special Dubai Expo livery circles the building.

"Fly the iconic Emirates A380," reads the sign she's holding.

Air France and Lufthansa fall on the other side of the spectrum. Early on in the pandemic, both carriers decided to retire the A380. While some rumors have circulated about the A380's possible return to Lufthansa, Air France's fleet has begun to meet the scrapper's torch. It's a sad end for the superjumbo at the flag carriers of two countries that have contributed more to the design, development and production of the A380 than any others.

Also in this category is Etihad, which operated perhaps the most lavish A380 of all airlines: It featured The Residence, a private suite on the aircraft's upper deck. Etihad has stored its A380 fleet and has not announced any plans for reactivation.

Review: The Residence on Etihad’s A380 — JFK to Abu Dhabi

Then, there are the carriers that parked their A380s at the height of the pandemic but have since reactivated the fleets (or are committed to reactivating). In addition to BA, those carriers include launch customer Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Korean Air (and its merger partner Asiana Airlines), Qatar Airways and All Nippon Airways, which uses its three turtle-emblazoned Flying Honus exclusively between Tokyo Narita Airport (NRT) and Honolulu's Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL).

ANA's fleet of A380s is used exclusively to shuttle vacationers between Tokyo and Hawaii. (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Outside of Emirates, is the A380 here to stay? It's complicated.

The demand environment is incredibly strong at most airlines right now as we head into the summer, but some leading indicators show the economy might be slowing. As summer turns to fall and then winter, whether this much capacity will be necessary remains an open question, Harteveldt said.

"How much A380 capacity makes sense to operate and how much does not?" Harteveldt asked. "Depending on ownership costs, will we see airlines if the economy slows or if fuel costs get even more expensive, will we see airlines park, some or all of their 380s? As we enter the fall or winter, will that parking be temporary until we get to spring of next year? Or will they say, as much as we like the airplane, it just isn't going to work?"

In other words, unless you're Emirates, nothing about the A380 should be taken for granted.

Featured photo by British Airways Airbus A380-800 aircraft with registration G-XLEK landing at London Heathrow International Airport LHR EGLL in England, United Kingdom. The aircraft has 4x RR Trent 900 engines. BA or BAW is the flag carrier of UK and member of Oneworld aviation alliance. BA operates in its fleet 12 of the double decker Airbus A380 airplane. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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