The world’s largest passenger aircraft enjoys unparalleled excitement

Written as an oversimplified anachronism when Covid-19 took off in aviation, the world’s largest passenger aircraft is enjoying an unlikely resurgence to handle an overwhelming rise in air travel.

Many airlines are struggling to see a future for their enormous Airbus SE A380s when the pandemic launches flights in early 2020. Qantas Airways Ltd parked its 12 double-deckers in the California desert, saying it would not be needed for at least three years, while Etihad Airways said it was not clear if its 10 superjumbos would ever fly again.

But this year’s sudden recovery from travel has given the cavernous jets – often with seats for more than 500 people – a new lease of life. They have become the choice for long-haul jumbo for airlines from the UK to the Gulf and Australia, as passenger volumes expand the aviation workforce that was depleted during the crisis.

By the end of 2022, monthly A380 flights will be nearly 60% of the pre-Covid totals, Cirium data show, challenging the jet’s doubts. British Airways will operate more A380 flights at the end of the year than for Covid-19.

When international travel returns, the carrying capacity of the A380 validates – at least for now – the massive bet by its No. 1 buyer Emirates Group of Dubai and proves useful for carriers like Qantas who did not permanently turn their backs on the giant aircraft.

The superjumbo – seen as announcing a new luxury aviation chapter with its on-board bars and whispered interior when it was introduced in 2005 – already fell out of favor before the pandemic hit, as airlines turned to smaller ones, more fuel-efficient aircraft. Airbus launched the program in 2019.

Malaysia Airlines Bhd, German Deutsche Lufthansa AG and Air France-KLM are among carriers that sell or phase out their fleets.

In June 2020, when Covid-19 was swinging around the world, airlines operated only 43 passenger flights worldwide with A380s. The expansion of vaccinations, which allowed governments to remove border controls, has changed the picture since then.

This month, there are nearly 4,000 scheduled services with the A380, and about 6,000 scheduled for January 2023, according to Cirium. Superjumbo services at Singapore Airlines Ltd, which turned one of the jets into a restaurant during the pandemic, will be almost back to normal by the end of 2022, the data show.

Existential threat

The appeal of the A380 for airlines has always been limited. For example, it found no buyers in the US, Latin America or Africa. Should the current increase in travel demand disappear and oil prices continue to rise, carriers such as British Airways of IAG SA could struggle to justify partially full, four-engine A380s. The advent of newer, energy-efficient aircraft would once again pose an existential threat to the superjumbo.

Still, the value of the A380 to airlines is likely to expand beyond the current surge, said John Grant, chief analyst at OAG. This is in part because the small group of carriers that fly the plane, or have financial commitment to the jet or have no immediate alternative, he said.

“I think it has a future for some carriers,” Grant said. “Airlines can either hope – or pray – that in 18 months the price of oil will be lower and the A380 will be an ideal aircraft.”

The A380 made its first flight in 2005 and won passengers with its brave scale – its wingspan is wider than a football field. Eventually, however, airlines were eliminated due to their high operating costs.

Airbus sold only 251 of the aircraft and the last delivery, to Emirates, was made in November 2021. The aircraft remains a polarizing force. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker described the A380 as the airline’s “biggest mistake”.

The French arm of Air France-KLM is pleased to have decommissioned its 10 A380s by 2020, two years earlier than initially planned, to prevent a refurbishment of about 400 million euros ($ 420 million), said Anne Rigail , who heads the division. Paris Thursday.

“The cost was so high that it was in our interest to move to new generation aircraft that are more efficient,” she said. “The A380s were set on the main routes, but were quite complicated to fill.”

Not everyone sees it that way. Sydney-based Qantas has put all three of its aircraft back into service and plans to have half the fleet in the air by the end of 2022 for long-haul routes including the Sydney-London flagship service. Ten refurbished Qantas A380s should return to the skies by early 2024.

Emirates, which operates more than 100 A380s, is much of its retrofit with seats in premium economy, a class popular with leisure travelers with money to burn when the pandemic disappears.

South Korean Asiana Airlines is temporarily deploying two A380s on flights to Los Angeles and Bangkok to provide more seats for the northern hemisphere summer holiday season.

And even unwanted A380s will most likely avoid the scrap yard, with France’s Chateauroux airport, some 250 kilometers south of Paris, unveiling a giant hanger designed to accommodate the double deckers at the beginning of next month.

To read: Aviation shortages threaten to destroy millions of vacations

The world’s largest passenger aircraft enjoys unparalleled excitement

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