Korean Air’s plan to start parting out Airbus A380s sets the stage for South Korea’s airlines to eventually exit four-engined passenger aircraft operations.

In future, the week of 6 May will be recalled as the beginning of the end for four-engined passenger jets in South Korea.

Korean Air A380

Source: Korean Air

Korean Air is parting out three A380s, but will retain seven examples

First, images emerged of a Korean Air A380 (HL7613) in the process of being parted out.

Cirium fleets data indicates that the aircraft was originally delivered in August 2011, and served for nine years until being parked in March 2020 at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic. The jet was permanently withdrawn from use in April.

In an email to FlightGlobal, Korean confirms that one A380 is being parted out, with a subsequent two examples to “be parted out sequentially”.

However, the carrier offered little long-term clarity about the rest of its A380 fleet: “Korean Air will operate [its seven] remaining A380s until their retirement, and the timing will be determined in consideration of future passenger demand and fleet plans.”

Days after the A380 images appeared, an obscure South Korean stock exchange filing indicated that the carrier will sell five unidentified aircraft to US company Sierra Nevada for W918 billion ($617 million). The aircraft will be disposed of on 30 September 2025.

Both companies declined to comment on the aircraft type involved in the transaction, but a report from news agency Reuters, citing unnamed sources, says they are 747-8Is.

The Sierra Nevada aircraft buy comes just weeks after the US Air Force awarded it a $13 billion contract to replace the 747-200-based E-4B under the Survivable Airborne Operations Center (SOAR) programme.

From a military perspective, a SOAR aircraft based on a four-engined jet such as the 747-8I has better survivability than one based on a twinjet. Moreover, the 747-8I’s vast interior would be able to accommodate the personnel and equipment consistent with an aircraft involved with the command and control of US nuclear forces.

Should the Sierra Nevada transaction involve 747-8Is, as seems likely, then Korean will be left with just four leased -8Is. Rather than operate a small, inefficient sub-fleet of -8Is, Korean will likely relinquish these aircraft when their leases expire. While the exact lease durations are unclear, three of the -8Is were involved in sale and leaseback transactions in 2016, and the fourth in 2017.

Although Korean’s 747-8I fleet looks to be entering its final years, the airline’s A380 fleet could temporarily grow when its long-awaited merger with Asiana finally takes place – a deal approved by most authorities globally, but still awaiting the blessing of the USA’s justice department.

Korean Air 747-8I 2

Source: Korean Air

Five of Korean’s 747-8Is appear set for a second life in US Air Force service

Given that the merger has yet to be finalised, Korean has not offered details of its plans for Asiana’s fleet. Still, Asiana’s six A380s could at some point push Korean’s A380 fleet to 13 aircraft. 

The fleets are not entirely compatible, however. Korean’s A380s are powered by the Engine Alliance GP7200 and Asiana’s by the Rolls-Royce Trent 900. The two fleets also have different interiors: Korean’s A380s have 407 seats, Asiana’s 495.

Korean may well balk at the prospect of operating a sub-fleet with two different engine types. In addition, given that Korean is already moving away from its own A380s, it is improbable that it will invest in any sort of costly refurbishment for Asiana’s A380s, the average age of which is 9.1 years.

This will be a marked shift compared with 1997, when Korean and Asiana hit a peak with in-service four-engined passenger jets, operating 41 747s between them. Of these, six were ‘combi’ aircraft capable of handling both passengers and cargo.

Moreover, both Asiana and Korean have set the stage for a future twin-engined fleet, with a cumulative orderbook for 75 new widebodies. Korean has orders for 33 A350s 900/1000s and 27 787-9/10s. Asiana has orders for 15 A350-900s.

As these new jets arrive, and as Korean works to consolidate its merger with Asiana, the carrier’s small fleet of big, four-engined airliners will quickly fade from South Korea’s skies.