Will the Airbus A380 fly again once travel resumes?
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Editor’s note: Many airlines are making use of this time to reassess future fleet plans. This post, which originally appeared earlier this year, has been updated to reflect announcements from Qantas, Lufthansa, Air France and others about the future of their A380 fleets.
The Airbus A380 is one of the most popular jets among passengers, thanks to what may well be the smoothest ride on a commercial aircraft. Airlines have used the vast interior space of the largest passenger plane to innovate and improve the in-flight experience by adding onboard bars, lounges and even showers.
Unfortunately the A380 has fallen from grace as airlines have opted to instead fly more efficient twin-engine jets like the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. Things got so dire that last year that Airbus announced it would be permanently ending production of the A380. And then, of course, the coronavirus pandemic hit, grounding thousands of aircraft worldwide. At the moment every A380 in the world is grounded, with the exception of those operated by China Southern Airlines.
Every time a plane is ferried to a storage facility there’s a serious question about whether it will ever fly again. This is especially true of the A380, a plane that was always a bit too big for most airlines to fly economically. So here’s a look at what the future might hold for this jumbo jet, which airlines have retired or might soon, and which are most likely to continue flying it once travel begins to resume.
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Number of A380s in fleet: 0
Despite being headquartered in the same country as Airbus, Air France was never a fan of its A380 fleet. The carrier had subpar premium cabins on its A380s, including angle-flat business-class seats and a first-class cabin that lacked privacy and uses retractable TVs like you’d find in a bulkhead economy seat.
Air France had planned on retiring its A380 fleet by 2022, but we recently learned that the jumbo jet won’t fly the blue, white and red flag ever again. Airbus has retired its entire fleet of 9 A380s effective immediately; one had already been phased out. This decision hardly comes as a surprise given Air France’s announcement last summer that it wouldn’t be retrofitting the birds with more modern and competitive premium cabins, and this is the only A380 retirement passengers will actually be happy about.
Number of A380s in fleet: 2 (+1 on order)
It’s safe to say that ANA never intended to be an A380 customer, but part of its takeover plan for bankrupt Skymark Airlines included assuming the carrier’s order for three A380s. ANA has branded these jets as “Flying Honu” or sea turtle, and decked the planes out in blue, green and orange liveries. ANA has also found a unique use for these jets, flying them exclusively between Tokyo and Honolulu, a popular and competitive leisure route.
Given the heavy competition flying between Tokyo and Hawaii, a route also operated by Hawaiian Airlines, United, Delta, JAL and Korean Air, ANA may find these planes to be hard to fill in a world of depressed demand as we gradually return to travel. Still, given how shiny and new these planes are, at under a year old, it would be outrageously expensive for ANA to retire them now. Expect to see the Flying Honu in the skies for a while, though ANA might need to consider deploying it on alternate routes to turn a profit on the giant plane.
Number of A380s in fleet: 6
Asiana’s six A380s were the only planes in the carrier’s fleet to feature a first-class cabin, though as of last year Asiana has stopped selling first class and rebranded the fully enclosed suites as a business-class product to cut costs. The carrier had been in poor financial shape before the coronavirus pandemic and has always had trouble filling its A380s. While it used to fly them twice daily to premium destinations like New York and Los Angeles, over the last year or so it had been downsizing those routes to smaller A350s.
Six A380s is a relatively small fleet, and only enough to serve two to three long-haul routes since each route from East Asia to Europe and North America generally requires two planes for daily operation. Asiana’s A380s are only four to six years old, so an early retirement would be expensive. Still, it may be a preferable option to flying mostly empty jumbo jets, and doing so would allow Asiana to streamline its crew and maintenance operations which might offer long term savings. It’s anyone’s guess what will happen here, but I don’t expect Asiana to hold onto these planes for much longer.
Number of A380s in fleet: 12
British Airways hasn’t done much to differentiate the onboard product on its 12 A380s from that on its fleet of 777s, 747s and 787s, but there’s one key reason the carrier is likely to hold on to its A380s. British Airways’ main hub at London Heathrow is one of the world’s most slot-constricted airports, meaning airlines can’t add new routes without paying a hefty sum (in the tens of millions of dollars) to buy a slot. This means that there’s a real incentive to operate larger jets like the A380, since it isn’t as easy to add additional frequencies with smaller aircraft as it might be at other airports. British Airways has plenty of aging 747s and 777s in its fleet, and if it’s looking to trim capacity I’d expect those cuts to come from those fleets, not the A380.
China Southern Airlines
Number of A380s in fleet: 5
China Southern is already the largest airline in China, a market where you’ll see 747s and 777s flying two-hour domestic flights to meet demand. This is to say nothing of the fact that China’s aviation market is expected to recover faster and grow more than Western countries, making the A380 seem a little more practical. If you need convincing that China Southern’s A380s are likely here to stay for a while, consider the fact that they’re the only A380s in the world flying at the moment.
Number of A380s in fleet: 115
Emirates has been the lifeblood of the A380 program since its inception, accounting for 50% of all A380 orders. In fact it was Emirates’ decision not to place an order for more A380s at the 2019 Dubai airshow (instead opting to order both A350 and 787) that ultimately foretold the end of the A380 production line.
Emirates CEO Tim Clark said in an interview recently that “we know the A380 is over,” but that doesn’t mean immediately. Emirates’ 115 A380s account for nearly half of the airline’s fleet, to say nothing of the eight more still on order. So what does Clark mean? TPG has learned that the carrier might be planning to retire almost 50 of its A380s, but there is no decision yet.
The Dubai-based airline, which is by far the world’s largest operator of the A380 superjumbo, grounded its entire fleet of double-decker planes on March 25 due to travel restrictions imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Likely, there will be an accelerated retirement timeline for the carrier’s A380s, especially as Emirates starts to take delivery of its 50 A350s and 30 787s beginning in 2023. Emirates’ model of serving connecting traffic means that the A380 still has a place, though in a post-COVID world with lower travel demand many routes currently operated by an A380 may be downgraded to smaller 777s. Emirates will also likely look to use some of its A380s for parts to keep the jets that are flying in tiptop shape.
Number of A380s in fleet: 10
Etihad has been hemorrhaging cash for years, with annual losses totaling billions of dollars. The Abu Dhabi-based carrier has also historically struggled to find a niche for its A380s, consistently changing the route map. We’ve gone from 2x daily A380s flights to JFK down to one, and we’ve seen the A380 pop up in Seoul, Mumbai and Australia at various times.
While the A380 doesn’t make financial sense for Etihad, I can’t imagine the carrier getting rid of them. Etihad was the first airline to introduce a single-aisle cabin on the A380 with its stunning first-class Apartments, in addition to its ultra-private three-room “The Residence,” which is one of the most exclusive and expensive seats in commercial aviation. While shedding the A380s might be best for Etihad’s balance sheet, it would also deal a huge blow to the carrier’s pride and reputation. Still, Etihad recently removed all A380 first class inventory for both paid and award tickets through the end of the year, suggesting that these planes won’t be flying for a while.
Number of A380s in fleet: 10
Korean Air has begun shying away from international first class and has plenty of long-haul capacity courtesy of its 747-8s, 777s and 787s, but you’ll likely be able to fly its A380s for a while to come. Korean and Delta are actively working to expand their trans-Pacific joint venture, with Delta funneling much of its traffic to Asia into Seoul via Korean Air. This codeshare creates a need for large jets like the A380, or at the very least casts doubt on the wisdom of an early retirement. Of course, Korean Air is in a difficult financial situation and may still consider shedding jets to cut costs.
Number of A380s in fleet: 8
Lufthansa was one of the first airlines to begin retiring jumbo jets when travel ground to a halt this year, bidding a permanent farewell to six of its 14 A380s. Now, there’s a serious question about whether any of the remaining eight will fly again. Lufthansa’s remaining A380s will remain grounded until at least 2022, and will only return then if demand to major destinations like New York and Hong Kong has picked up significantly.
While Lufthansa used to base its A380s exclusively out of its Frankfurt (FRA) hub, if they return, they’ll almost certainly be flying only out of Munich (MUC) instead. Bloomberg quotes Klaus Froese, head of Lufthansa’s Frankfurt base, as saying “In Frankfurt, the chance that we will again operate any A380 is close to zero. That’s all but decided. In Munich we will have to see. Planning is very difficult in these times.”
Number of A380s in fleet: 6
Malaysia is perhaps the biggest wild card on the list, as the airline has expressed very different plans for the future of its A380 fleet under its many recent leaders (the airline has gone through five different CEOs since 2015). Possible options have included an early retirement, with the A380s replaced by newer A350s, keeping the planes to add seasonal capacity to certain destinations, and even creating a sister company to use the A380s for Hajj charters. At this point none of those options would surprise me, though I wonder how the Hajj (and the massive industry of Hajj charter flights) will be affected by social-distancing guidelines.
Number of A380s in fleet: 12
Qantas has already begun trimming its fleet to reflect a slow projected recovery of demand, retiring its 747s this year. The A380s are used almost exclusively for flights to the U.S. and London (via Singapore), as well as a few seasonal routes around Asia. While the A380 works quite well for Qantas on some of these routes, it simply might be too much plane for the foreseeable future.
In announcing the airline’s “post COVID recovery plan” this week, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told reporters that the airline will ground its fleet of A380s until at least the middle of 2023 as it predicts a very slow recovery of its long-haul operations. The airline does intend to reactivate them if and when demand returns, with Joyce saying, “The aircraft are being put into the Mojave Desert, where the environment protects the aircraft (because) we have the intention at the right time to restart them, but that is a considerable amount of time away.”
The A380 is the only aircraft in Qantas’ fleet to feature an international first-class product, meaning that Qantas won’t be offering first class for at least the next three years. It’s still unclear what the airline plans to do with its network of first class lounges, many of which, like the one at LAX, are used by other Oneworld first class passengers as well.
Number of A380s in fleet: 10
Qatar Airways’ A380 is a unique plane, as it’s the only one in its fleet to offer a true first-class experience. But the massive-business class cabin on the upper deck doesn’t feature Qsuites, the revolutionary product that won last year’s TPG Award for best business class. Qatar primarily flies these jets to Asia, Europe and Australia, and I struggle to see how they’ll work moving forward. With experts agreeing that demand for travel will take years to recover to its pre-pandemic levels, Qatar would be better suited on most of these routes by operating lower-capacity 777, 787 and A350 aircraft.
Qatar’s famously outspoken CEO Akbar al-Baker said as much earlier this year at a media briefing. He was quoted by Executive Traveler as saying “Qatar Airways is parking its 10 A380s and they will not return for at least a year, and maybe never.” As an airline that likes to keep its fleet young and fresh, the A380’s days in Doha may be numbered.
Number of A380s in fleet: 19
The launch customer of the A380, Singapore also offers the world’s most spacious cabin in its new Suites configuration. The carrier has also retired (or chosen not to extend the lease on) a number of its early-delivery A380 aircraft, raising some doubt about their long-term future. Given how much Singapore invested to develop its new Suites class and how much good publicity comes from that product, I would expect Singapore’s A380s to fly for a while. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the fleet trimmed further though, with the older planes that don’t have the new suites first on the chopping block.
Number of A380s in fleet: 6
Thai Airways has been in a difficult financial position for years, struggling to drive loyalty or command a price premium in a crowded Asian market. With a limited long-haul route network and intense competition from low-cost carriers close to home, Thai has not fared well. All of this points to an early exit for its A380s, especially as Thai continues to take delivery of 787 and A350 aircraft that can operate more nimbly.
The A380’s days were numbered long before the greatest disruption to commercial travel began. Many airlines are avoiding making permanent decisions about plane retirements until they have a better handle on what the recovery will look like, but once we start flying, there are going to be fewer double-decker jets out there. If you’ve had an A380 flight on your award travel bucket list, you should make that a top priority as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Featured image by G Tipene/Shutterstock
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