While all eyes have been on the ending of production of Boeing’s landmark 747 programme, this year looks to be something of an Indian summer for another iconic, if shorter-lived, big jet programme.
It is just over a year since Airbus delivered its last A380 to by far the jet’s biggest customer, Emirates, having three years earlier made the decision to pull the plug on the programme after 251 deliveries.
But while even at the depths of the pandemic Emirates’ commitment to the A380 was never in doubt, it is the move by another UAE carrier to restore operations with the ultra-large jet which is more indicative of the recent upturn in airline interest in the type.
In December Etihad Airways said the “time is right” to bring some of its A380s back into service this summer. Etihad is bringing back four of its 10 A380s, initially deploying the aircraft on its Abu Dhabi-London Heathrow route.
While Etihad never completely ruled out the return of its A380s, it appeared one of the least likely operators to bring the widebody back into service after indefinitely grounding the type when the pandemic hit.
“We don’t see them re-entering into our fleet planning unless the yield on the ticket price and the demand could ever make them financially viable. Now with the $100 oil price that is unlikely to occur any time soon, if ever,” then Etihad chief executive Tony Douglas told FlightGlobal in an interview in March last year.
“The A380 is an incredible product. It’s something that all of us love from a travelling perspective. But the economics of it commercially don’t work.”
But fast forward to the end of 2022 and circumstances had changed sufficiently to earn the A380 a stay of execution with Etihad. And the Gulf carrier is not alone in doing so.
In December German carrier Lufthansa took its first A380 out of storage ahead of plans to restore services with the type this summer. The aircraft has just been flown to Lufthansa Technik’s faciltiies in the Philippines for a C-check ahead of its return to service.
Having hinted that the ultra-large jet could be an answer to the carrier’s capacity challenges, Lufthansa group chief executive Carsten Spohr last summer confirmed its decision to bring three back into service for operation from its Munich base this June.
It has already upped that number. “We’ll need to bring that number up [based on] the demand [trend] and for operational reasons… Three is not enough,” Spohr said in November. Lufthansa has eight A380s in total, having sold six out of the 14 it originally operated.
What Etihad, Lufthansa and others probably were not counting on was that the recovery in travel demand would not only be stronger than most dared hope, but that it would be accompanied by such pressures on aircraft availability.
Supply chain challenges, exacerbated by the continued impact of Covid-19, the Ukraine crisis and China’s lengthy following of a ’zero-Covid’ strategy, mean aircraft capacity is at a premium this summer.
Indeed, Sphor has repeatedly suggested that capacity constraints will be a feature of the commercial air travel sector in the coming years. Among the key factors, global supply chain bottlenecks are causing “massive delays” to deliveries of new aircraft and spares for MRO work, Spohr says.
Alongside the supply-demand dynamic, the cost side of the equation has also tipped a little in favour of the A380. Airlines made much of the improved operating economics of new-generation widebodies over the A380. However, fuel prices have relented. The barrel price of crude oil, which jumped well over the $100 mark in the second quarter of last year, has sat significantly below that level for most of the past six months.
It meant that by the time Etihad’s new chief executive Antonoaldo Neves took the decision to restore the type, he was able to make the case that the post-pandemic recovery and rising demand has made the A380 “financially viable once more”.
Etihad says the restoration of the A380s to service will free capacity to increase frequency on other routes and enable new destinations to be opened.
WHICH AIRLINES ARE STILL FLYING THE A380?
A third of the 15 airline customers which acquired the type and were operating the A380 when the pandemic hit have either withdrawn the type permanently or are yet to disclose their intent to return the type to service.
Charter operator HiFly only operated one of the type and by November 2020 had exited A380 operations.
Air France was arguably the most categoric in its decision. The airline had begun phasing out its 10 A380s even before the pandemic, under a plan to withdraw the type by the end of 2022. It, though, took the type out of service with immediate effect in May 2020, having grounded the widebodies in March.
Malaysia Airlines had been seeking a way out for its A380s long before the pandemic, having struggled to make the business case for the type. Its six A380s remain in storage and up for sale, with no signs of a reprieve. “The A380 is not in our network plan anymore,” Malaysia Airlines chief executive Izham Ismail told FlightGlobal last summer.
Thai Airways too has grounded its fleet, though it is pondering a potential return. In November Thai Airways commercial chief Korakot Chatasingha told FlightGlobal that while the airline has not committed to a decision, it is looking at the “cost effectiveness” of such a move to help cope with a capacity shortfall.
Ironically, China Southern Airlines, has been one of the few to operate A380s through the crisis. Howevere the Chinese carrier a year ago said that it planned to axe the type by the end of 2022 and it is thought to have flown its last service with the type late last year.
Other Asian operators, though, have not lost their appetite for the widebody.
Korean Air returned the first of its A380s into service last year as international markets began to reopen in the region. Cirium fleets data shows it has so far returned five of its 10 A380s. Korean’s merger partner Asiana Airlines similarly began bringing back its A380s last summer in response to the demand ramp-up. Four of its six A380s are in service, according to Cirium data.
|Source: Cirium fleets data (as of 6 Feb 2023)|
|Thai Airways International||0||6|
Qantas brought back a sixth A380 in December. The Oneworld carrier, which relaunched A380 flights in April last year, initially brought back five of the jets into service. “These were key markets for Qantas before Covid-19, and given how well they have recovered, we expect travel demand on these routes to be strong enough for the A380,” chief executive Alan Joyce said at the time.
It intends to bring its remaining four back into service by the end of this year – having retired two of its initial dozen A380s.
Singapore Airlines, launch customer for the jet in 2007, remains committed to the type. It was among the first airlines to restore A380 flights after the pandemic, initially on the London Heathrow route in November 2021. Cirium fleets data shows that 10 of its 15 double-decker jets are back in operation.
Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways last summer brought back two of its A380s, deployed on its Tokyo Narita-Honolulu service. ANA had been the most recent new operator of the type, having taken delivery of the 520-seat jet in 2019.
When Lufthansa restores A380 flights, it will join British Airways as the only European operator of the jet. BA was the first European carrier to relaunch A380 flights in November 2021, as Covid restrictions on flights to the USA were eased. It has since returned all 12 of its widebodies.
BA’s Gulf partner Qatar Airways has been one of the reluctant carriers to return the type to service. Chief executive Akbar Al Baker had been a vocal critic of the efficiencies, both economic and environmental, of operating the A380 versus new-generation widebodies. However, Qatar Airways’ own capacity was further crimped by the grounding of a portion of its A350s, prompting it to return the type to service in November 2021.
“We are so desperate for capacity to fuel the huge growth in passenger numbers the airline is facing in this period,” Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker said last summer.
Cirium data shows eight of Qatar’s 10 A380s are now back in service.
Emirates of course remains the key A380 operator. Airline president Tim Clark has been steadfast throughout the crisis in believing demand will warrant the return of the double-decker. In March last year, as international markets reopened in earnest, Clark flagged a combination of “astronomical demand” and slot shortages at major airports as making the case for the type.
It has since brought back more than 80 – Cirium fleets data shows it has now 86 A380s in service and a further 35 in storage – and having outlined plans to resume flights with the type to destinations including Birmingham, Casablanca, Glasgow and Nice, it expects to have restored 90% of its pre-pandemic A380 network by the end of the summer.
Further underlining the importance of the type to Emirates’ future, the Gulf carrier is retrofitting 67 of its ultra-large jets with a new interior. The first to these, which has been refurbished to include a 56-seat premium economy cabin, returned to service in January.
Overall, more than half the 233 A380s in service before Covid hit are back flying. Cirium fleets data shows that as of early February, before the planned service reintroductions by Etihad and Lufthansa, there were 132 A380s in service with airlines and carriers had a further 97 in storage.