A380 finds new purpose: The world’s biggest passenger jet is now flying without most seats

Jul 7, 2020

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The drop in demand for flights caused by the coronavirus has resulted in some unprecedented moves for the aviation industry. Airlines have consolidated flights across major metropolitan areas, added tag flightsretired large numbers of aircraft and even converted passenger planes into cargo jets. The latest aircraft to join in on offering a cargo-only version? The A380 superjumbo.

Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly has temporarily removed passenger seats from its sole A380 to make way for more cargo. It now offers over 300 cubic meters of capacity and can fly with nearly 60 tons of cargo. This makes it the first-ever A380 to have been modified into an “auxiliary freighter.”

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(Photo courtesy of Hi Fly)
(Photo courtesy of Hi Fly)

Hi Fly’s A380 had 471 seats across two levels. Like most other airlines temporarily reconfiguring their planes, Hi Fly only removed economy class seats as premium-cabin seats have more parts and are harder to disassemble/reinstall. Other interior elements like galleys and lavatories were also left intact for when the plane returns to normal operations.

Related: How passenger planes are converted into cargo jets filled with life-saving medical supplies

(Photo courtesy of Hi Fly)

The A380 wasn’t designed to be a freighter. Although it’s the world’s largest passenger aircraft, it doesn’t actually fit much freight for a widebody. The lower cargo hold isn’t very spacious and the upper deck is a couple of inches too short to fit standard containers. Also, the upper deck doors are about 26 feet above the ground so loading cargo would be a logistical challenge.

Airbus considered building a cargo variant of the aircraft, the A380F. However, those plans fell through when FedEx scrapped its order. While that aircraft would have been built slightly differently to maximize cargo capacity, there’s still the issue that the plane would get too heavy before it’s fully filled up.

Related: How pilots operate cargo flights on passenger aircraft

(Photo courtesy of Hi Fly)

Hi Fly took over the A380 from Singapore Airlines and retained its original interior, including enclosed first-class suites with the ability to create a quasi-double bed. It is chartered for various reasons, such as to substitute for planes that airlines have to ground for maintenance. For instance, in 2018, I flew on the plane when Norwegian used it to cover for grounded Boeing 787s. More recently, it’s been used for repatriation flights, such as Europeans needing to evacuate Wuhan, and to transport medical supplies.

Related: The world’s biggest charter jet is heading to Wuhan to evacuate Europeans

While this is the first A380 to be converted, airlines around the world have recently converted their passenger planes to cargo ones, such as Air Canada and three of its flagship Boeing 777-300ERs. Some airlines have also been operating cargo-only flights without modifying their aircraft by using the space on seats and overhead lockers to load boxes, including Malaysia Airlines and its A380. Airlines have been doing this to meet the increased demand for cargo during the pandemic and make use of their aircraft that would otherwise be grounded.

Bottom line

Many airlines have either retired their A380s or put them into long-term storage in recent months so it’s nice to see that Hi Fly found a new purpose for its jet. While it might not be viable long-term, with so many airlines’ fleets grounded, it could be a while until Hi Fly sees demand for charter passenger flights again.

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

Featured image by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy/Hi Fly.

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