In FEB19, after a number of order cancellations, Airbus announced that it would stop producing A380s in Toulouse in 2021, with the last order delivery. A little over a year later, the corona crisis led to the A380s being the first aircraft type to be sent to the parking lot of possibly no return. Yet, Lufthansa Technik’s press release on 05MAY20, revealing an anonymous customer’s interest in “the support of the operational change of a first Airbus A380” for use as a temporary freighter, has got the aviation media in a flurry as to who this could possibly be – with long discussions on whether it even makes sense.
The A380 was already an unfortunate contender for the “Aircraft with the shortest commercial history” before COVID-19 forced it to be grounded. The Airbus project initially foresaw more
than 1,000 planes being produced, but to date only 245 exist, (with a remaining – probably now obsolete – Emirates’ pending order of 8), and all but one of those A380s is currently grounded. The
single exception: Malaysia Airlines started KUL-LHR operations last week, using an A380 as a cargo-only flight carrying 26 tons of mainly e-commerce goods from Guangzhou, China, and taking back
pharmaceutical products and mail.
The A380 fan club
A total of 15 airlines own A380s, and by far the biggest fan is Emirates which has 115 (47% of global stock) and championed the plane as a solution to slot restraints and crowded skies. At the World Travel Market in 2016, Emirates’ President, Tim Clark, told competitors: “if you want to challenge us, go buy the 380, […] when you look at the constraints that we’re all facing in this business, […] It’s hard to get slots. The 380 for me is the answer.”
Yet, the A380 is difficult to fly profitably as its passenger load factor rarely gets to an efficient level. By 2018, most airlines had come to the same conclusion that it is much easier and cheaper to run smaller planes and more frequencies, and so the wave of order cancellations began.
Tim Clark’s message in a recent The National (UAE) interview, is a damning one: “We know the A380 is over, the 747 is over but the A350 and the 787 will always have a place. They […] will be a better fit probably for global demand in the years post the pandemic,” though not as blunt as Teal Group’s VP of Analysis, Richard Aboulafia, speaking to The Points Guy in FEB19, slating the A380 program as being “dead. It was born to die. Simply the dumbest program of modern times.”
A brief history of the A380F
Airbus worked on both an A380F and an A380 combi version, but these never took to the skies, despite an initial order of 27 A380F by FedEx, UPS, ILFC and Emirates. By 2005, it had begun cutting metal for wings and producing components. Yet, in 2006 Emirates and ILFC cancelled their A380F orders, followed by FedEx who instead opted for the B777F, and in 2007, UPS also cancelled, later switching to B747-8. Whether a passenger-to-freighter conversion program was going to come is a question Airbus still has to answer, and though it has offered temporary conversion kits for its A330s and A350s, it has so far left out the A380.
Had the A380F ever been produced, it would have been the world’s second largest freighter behind the AN225 and could have transported as much as 2 MD11 loads.
The A380 has more fat than muscle…
The general consensus of aviation experts has always been that the A380F, like its passenger version although perhaps even more so, would be very difficult to fly profitably. As Dan Wang wrote in his blog back in 2016, “An A380-F would be too fat to fly at a profit: The plane would hit the maximum payload (a constraint of weight) before its maximum cubic space (a constraint of volume). Its design can’t support the maximum payload required to generate a profit. Consider a comparison with the Boeing 747-400F, a popular air freighter. The 747 has a maximum take-off weight of 448,000 kilograms to the A380’s 575,000. In addition, the 747 has a cargo capacity of 710 m3 to the hypothetical A380-F’s 1134 m3. The A380-F would be able to carry 60% more volume than the 747, but only 28% more weight. It wouldn’t be fully loaded at typical levels of air cargo density, or at least nothing close to what can be supported by the thrust capacity of the 747.”
Is it really worth it?
Taking an existing A380 passenger version and temporarily converting that to a freighter is even more limiting. Not only are you now hampered by the fact that loading has to take place through passenger doors (time-consuming and size and weight-restricting), you also have the problem of accessing the second floor via narrow staircases, and you have passenger-deck flooring that is definitely not cut out to carry anything but the lightest cargo. Something that is no problem when it comes to PPE goods as these are generally voluminous yet light, but which is not a viable long-term solution. That said, Henning Jochmann, Senior Director Aircraft Modification Base Maintenance at Lufthansa Technik, stated in the press release: "As the workscope comprises much more than just taking out seats, you need engineering experts who know exactly what the challenges are and how to document the technical solutions so correctly that the aviation authorities agree. The current exemption and our solution for it can be transferred to our Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) at a later point of time without major adjustments. This means that anyone who opts for Lufthansa Technik's exceptional solution now can easily switch to the permanent STC solution later.” Does that mean that cargo doors might be cut, and internal modifications made for easier cargo loading on the upper decks? Either way, it will all cost money and the question is – is it really viable for the limited tonnage that the modified A380 will then be able to carry?
Who is the Mystery Shopper for the world’s first A380 “Prachter*”?
Who is the unnamed customer? According to aeroTELEGRAPH, a Lufthansa spokesperson denied that it was Lufthansa, for which Lufthansa Technik has already converted 4 A330s to temporary freighters. Over at Simple Flying, Tom Boon’s theory is that Emirates has its own maintenance, so is ruled out, and that it would logically probably be one of the airlines already having maintenance carried out by Lufthansa Technik. He names these as Asiana Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa, and Qantas, and narrows it down to those airlines currently operating daily freighter flights between Asia and Europe: Lufthansa and BA. His speculation is BA, arguing that while most of its A380s are parked in Chateauroux, one (G-XLEH) is still at LHR, whilst a second (G-XLEG) is already with Lufthansa Technik in Manila. Fair point.
He forgets, however, that another airline – and a Lufthansa Cargo Joint Venture partner - recently signed a MoU with Lufthansa Technik in NOV19, for its B777-9: All Nippon Airways (ANA). And ANA happens to be in possession of the 2 newest A380s, having taken delivery of them just a year ago. An expensive aircraft to simply put aside now, and – since ANA has already been carrying cargo on the passenger seats of its B787s since last month, the move to an A380 Passenger-Freighter might, for the interim, be better than writing it off altogether.
Or is it Malaysia Airlines wanting to ramp up one of its fleet of 6 A380s, given that it has started operating KUL-LHR cargo-only flights already, only using the limited cargo holds? After all, Malaysia Airlines, too, has a Lufthansa Technik cooperation history.
What is your bet?
*Recently the new slang word “Prachter” has started popping up in German media. It stands for “Passagier Frachter” (Passenger Aircraft turned Freighter. The English equivalent “Pfreighter” doesn’t quite trip off the tongue…)
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