In my A380 article back in MAY20, I was inclined to agree with Teal Group’s VP of Analysis, Richard Aboulafia, when he slated the A380 program as being “dead. It was born to die.” The program had been shut down after just over a decade of production and an output well off its original target of 1000 aircraft… and then the pandemic came and pushed all but 4 of the 245 planes into the desert. Yet now the A380 is staging a comeback with a growing number of airlines.
Despite being expensive to run – and even more so when fuel prices are soaring – the A380 is increasingly back in the skies. That the majority of these are Emirates aircraft, is hardly surprising given that they constitute almost half of the airline’s fleet. No, what is unexpected, is that other airlines are also returning their parked behemoths to the skies.
Etihad’s 4-plane comeback
The most recent of these, is Etihad. It has a fleet of ten A380s (aged up to 9 years), and announced that it will be reintegrating the younger four of them (aged 6-7 years) as it expands its route network. The first will return to service on 25JUL23, operating between Abu Dhabi International Airport (AUH) and London Heathrow Airport (LHR) – the route that will also be covered by the other three A380s, when they are delivered again after maintenance, though no exact date has been published yet as to when all four will have returned. That first return aircraft was stored at Teruel, Spain. It recently traveled to Tarbes-Lourdes Airport in southwest France before being ferried to Abu Dhabi for its C check, carried out by Etihad Engineering, Etihad Group’s maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) arm. The second A380 is now undergoing its C check, and the third will follow shortly. Though the airline has stated that it is unlikely to reinstate all ten aircraft, the reason four are being brought back, is to cope with the strong passenger demand for flights. By reinstating the A380, other aircraft serving the London route are freed up to be deployed in the airline’s expanding network. Etihad’s Vice President for Commercial, David Doherty, announced: “We have delivered the first A380 of the Etihad Airways re-entry into service program, and work has begun on the next input in the nose-to-tail project at our facility.”
Difficult to sell, better to keep
Meanwhile, British Airways, All Nippon Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Qatar, Asiana, Korean Air, China Southern Airlines, and Lufthansa have brought A380s back into their fleets – for how long, is unclear in most cases. Only Korean Air have published that they will be retiring their A380s again by 2027. Speaking to CNN last year, Aviation Analyst and MD of Advisory at IBA, Geoff Van Klaveren, predicted: “I think most of the airlines will continue to operate the planes to the end of their life. The question mark is whether that life is more like 18 years rather than 25 years, which is the lifetime of most aircraft. If you compare it to the new generation aircraft, it really is not particularly fuel efficient, so that would suggest that its average age will come down.” Nevertheless, he confirmed: “It’s definitely having a comeback. Operators were quite reluctant to bring it back because it’s a very costly airplane, but I think we’ve seen demand recovering faster than people expected.” Qatar Airways revealed that the sole reason it had pulled its A380s out of retirement, was due to its dispute with Airbus over newer A350s and emphasized that the A380 remains uneconomic to fly.
The A380 is, however, a clear favorite among passengers, yet not so much among airplane purchasers. Van Klaveren explained that “The value of a 10-year-old A380 fell 60% compared to pre-pandemic, to $30 million compared to around $76 million, which is quite extraordinary. So, a lot of [airlines] think they might as well operate them, because it’s costing them money to keep them airworthy.” Air France, Thai Airways, and Malaysia Airways did neither, retiring them altogether.
A whole new airline based on the A380
“Some operators have realized that it’s a very difficult airplane to sell, for many different reasons. If you don’t have any A380s you’re definitely not going to bring it into your fleet, because that’s very risky and expensive,” was Van Klaveren’s view in 2022, and yet there is someone out there prepared to build an entire company on that risk: that someone is James Asquith - otherwise known for being a Guinness World Record holder as the youngest person ever to travel to every sovereign country on the planet. He founded Holiday Swap, a home-swapping travel platform, and has now gone on to found a European startup airline subsidiary. Global Airlines has not just leased, but actually bought a 16-year-old, ex HiFly A380, which it plans to fly across the Atlantic from 2024 on. “Acquiring our aircraft rather than leasing showcases our commitment to financial security and resilience from day one," Global Airlines CEO James Asquith explained. The plane, which last flew as a temporary freighter, is being refurbished to seat 471 passengers and will operation between the U.S. and the UK. Three more A380s should be joining the new airline’s fleet in the coming months, to serve the same route from Spring 2024 on – all this, despite the general consensus among airlines being that the A380 is extremely difficult to operate profitably. James Asquith believes: “It’s a fantastic aircraft when you use it in the right way and on the right routes. We will be looking to invest significant amounts on refurbishing the A380 we already have and the future ones that we’re looking to bring into the fleet.”
Whether or not he will include cargo in his airline plans is not yet known. Either way, the A380 can only carry around 8 tons of cargo. The pandemic saw a couple of A380 being deployed as preighters, but these appear to have fizzled out altogether now – again for reasons of economy.
According to Cirium, around 106 A380 are back in the skies, these days. So, the A380 story continues for now.
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