Asiana’s plan to keep A380 pilots certified: Fly 30 flights to nowhere

Jul 23, 2020

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During the coronavirus pandemic, many of the world’s largest passenger aircraft have been grounded. As airlines attempt to preserve cash, many have taken to storing — and, in some cases, retiring — their fleets of Airbus A380 and Boeing 747 aircraft. But with storing aircraft comes a major problem for airlines by the way of keeping trainee pilots certified.

Asiana Airlines is one of those carriers. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s grounded its A380 fleet. But with no plans retire the aircraft, the carrier is now operating empty flights in an effort to keep its trainee pilots certified.

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In May, Asiana flew one of its A380 aircraft over South Korea more than 20 times. Each of the trips was a flight to nowhere, carrying no passengers to allow trainee pilots to practice takeoffs and landings.

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

While the trip may seem like a waste of resources and unnecessary fuel consumption, an Asiana spokesperson told Bloomberg that the airline didn’t have another option. The flight simulators that it typically uses are located in Thailand, and because of coronavirus travel bans, the trainee pilots weren’t able to fly to the Thai Airways-owned simulators to practice. And alternatively, the cost of letting the trainee pilots’ licenses lapse was too high.

Related: Will the Airbus A380 fly again once travel resumes?

Asiana has six Airbus A380s in its fleet — all of which are currently stored. According to flight history on FlightRadar24, Asiana used its A380 registered as HL7625 to operate most of the training flights. Each of the flights between May 6-8 took off from Seoul Incheon (ICN), circled and landed back at the airport, with each flight averaging around 22 minutes, though some were longer or shorter.

(Image courtesy of FlightRadar24)

Then in June, Asiana A380s registered as HL7634 and HL7635, HL7640 and HL7641 each operated one test flight on the same routing from ICN to ICN. In total, Asiana’s A380s appear to have operated 30 ICN-ICN flights, according to data from FlightRadar24.

Under normal circumstances, pilots must have taken off and landed an aircraft at least three times in the past 90 days to retain their license, including those cycles completed in a flight simulator.

According to the airline, there were 135 pilots who didn’t have enough flying time on the A380s and it couldn’t afford to keep flying the empty training flights. As a special exemption, Korea’s transport minister extended the pilots’ credentials.

While Asiana is keeping its pilots licensed to operate its A380s, it may be some time before the carrier returns the superjumbos to operation. Given the high capacity of the aircraft — Asiana’s A380s seat 495 passengers across three cabins — and the subsequent high operating cost, the airline may not return the aircraft to service anytime soon.

Elsewhere, operators of A380s have had to make similar decisions. While most larger airlines have their own flight simulators, allowing them to avoid flights to nowhere, they have also elected to keep their A380 fleets grounded or even completely retired.

Lufthansa, for example, has announced that it plans to ground its A380s until at least 2021. Air France announced in May that effective immediately, it was retiring its fleet of A380s.

Related: Air France is retiring the A380. Here’s why we won’t miss it

On the other hand, the world’s largest A380 operator Emirates resumed operations with the superjumbo on July 15 to both London Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Emirates President Sir Tim Clark said this month that the airline plans to have all A380s back in service by 2022.

Featured photo by FG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images.

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