Perhaps no other Valentine’s Day was more bittersweet for AvGeeks than that of 2019, when Airbus and Emirates jointly announced that the day was set for the end of production of the Airbus A380. The Dubai-based airline switched up its order book and opted for the smaller and much more economical A350. Ever since, the situation has only gotten worse, as the pandemic has upended the business model that the Airbus A380 most relied on – feeding traffic through a hub onto a Super Jumbo. While the industry’s bodies have provided various predictions of when aviation will eventually recover, little hope was provided for the comeback of the quad-engine aircraft, including the A380.
Many operators of the double-decker have permanently phased out their Airbus A380 aircraft, as the economics of the jet simply does not make a positive impact on an airline’s final line. Despite the fact that there were some signs of positivity, recently shared by executives from airlines that have the A380 in their fleet, its days are still numbered.
However, for those unlucky that are yet to do so, there will be some opportunities to fly the aircraft before it sadly disappears from the skies forever.
Perhaps, the best indication of the A380s eventual demise could be retraced to the same Valentine’s Day of 2019, when the Dubai-based airline and the manufacturer came to an agreement to reshuffle the former’s order book.
On that fatal to the Airbus A380 day, the two parties announced that Emirates will axe 39 orders for the Super Jumbo, finalizing the number of double-deckers it would eventually operate to a maximum of 123. To replace the void, the flag carrier of Dubai would instead take 40 A330-900 and 30 A350-900 aircraft. Seemingly, that agreement was not finalized, as a few months later, the manufacturer announced that Emirates ordered 50 Airbus A350 aircraft in November 2019.
“Complementing our A380s and 777s, the A350 XWBs will give us added operational flexibility in terms of capacity, range and deployment. In effect, we are strengthening our business model to provide efficient and comfortable air transport services to, and through, our Dubai hub,” at the time commented the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum.
The previous order, which included the A330-900 and the A350-900 was nowhere to be seen in Airbus’ Orders & Delivery data.
Emirates was clearly gearing up for a future that once again included emphasis on a more diverse and efficient twin-engine fleet with several cockpit types present. While that does increase costs, as the airline will need to train personnel and stock up on spare parts, as some of the reasons, the move will also allow the carrier to be more flexible in terms of its operations. The smaller capacity aircraft will allow Emirates to fly thinner routes that perhaps did not make economic sense with either the A380 or the Boeing 777. After all, the Airbus A350 is not the only smaller twin-engine aircraft that the illustrious carrier has on order – the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is also tied to the carrier’s books.
The same story repeats itself as one flips through the pages of other airlines’ stories. For example, Air France, which already retired all 10 of its A380s, pointed out several factors why it would retire its Super Jumbos in November 2019. For one, the French airline pointed out that other aircraft would be “better fit with market needs, through smaller gauge aircraft with increased frequencies,” in addition to the fact that Air France would have had to refurbish the cabins on the A380. The cabin refurbishment, engine and airframe Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) procedures would have set back the airline a whopping €400 million ($485 million). Considering that the estimated useful life of the A380 is only 12 years. The airline’s first double-decker arrived in October 2009, meaning that Air France had quite a decision on its hands about what to do with the aircraft – and even before the current pandemic hit, the company announced that it would sell five of its Airbus A380 aircraft by 2022 in July 2019.
Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) seemingly also danced to the same tune that other A380 operators were listening to. The German airline announced that it would phase out six of 14 of its Super Jumbos in 2022 and 2023 in March 2019. Citing “economic reasons,” the airline also cited the fact that the “structure of the network and the long-haul fleet, fundamentally optimized according to strategic aspects, will give the company more flexibility and at the same time increase its efficiency and competitiveness.”
“By replacing four-engine planes with new models, we are laying a sustainable foundation for our future in the long run,” commented on the order and the sale of the A380 the chief executive of Lufthansa Carsten Sphor.
Unsurprisingly, more airlines turned their backs on the aircraft as COVID-19 halted international travel. It might have been clear that air travel would change, once the world climbs out of the hellhole that the current pandemic has thrown it in. Changes seemingly would hit mega hubs and subsequently, large aircraft, particularly hard, as passengers are predicted to be reluctant to connect through to their final destination, avoiding another large crowd at the connecting airport.
Last glimmers of hope
Several airlines in unison with their base airports had adopted the mega-hub model, including Airbus A380 operators like Emirates, Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY), or Qatar Airways. Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY), for one, was the first to phase out its Super Jumbo as the Changi Airport (SIN)-based airline retired its first A380 in November 2017. Following only nine years of flying, the aircraft became the only Airbus double-decker to find a second home with the Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance and Insurance (ACMI)-type airline Hi Fly.
Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways also were not very keen on the idea to fly the A380, leaving Emirates, and for a brief moment Hi Fly, as the only active operators of the aircraft. While Etihad Airways has grounded the Super Jumbo indefinitely without indicating a decided fate as of yet, the Doha, Qatar-based airline’s chief executive was eccentric as always regarding the future of Qatar Airways Airbus A380 aircraft.
“The A380 is one of the worst aircraft when it comes to emissions that is flying today. That is why we have decided that we will not operate them for the foreseeable future – and even when we will operate them, we will only operate half of the numbers we have,” commented Akbar Al Baker, publicly offering to sell them during CAPA Live January 2021.
Nevertheless, some will still live on. Emirates President Tim Clark indicated that the airline will operate the double-decker at least until the mid-2030s. After all, the airline did install its newest Premium Economy cabin offering on the aircraft in December 2020, which has been very popular amongst the carrier’s customers, according to Clark.
Qantas could be another airline that will eventually once again fly the double-decker. The airline’s CEO Alan Joyce indicated that “there are going to be opportunities to deploy those aircraft.”
“We do believe there is a need for that fleet and we do believe that it will generate cash,” stated Joyce during EUROCONTROL Aviation StraightTalk in early-February 2021.