“The A380 is over” declares Emirates president Tim Clark

The A380 proves bigger does not always mean better!

With newer and greener aircraft in India, and a pandemic destroying economies, it means the end of the road for the A380!

The widespread pandemic COVID-19 pandemic has affected one industry in particular, the worst: Aviation.

By the end of March, airlines worldwide had grounded all long and short-haul passenger aircraft. Only a handful of them were flying to bring stranded citizens back home!

Any aircraft you buy — from a narrow body single aisle to a double-decker, costs millions. You must make regular payments to the financers — either banks or lease agencies, to keep the aircraft with you. Giving up is not an option for aircraft — impairment charges to remove aircraft can cost millions.

But the pandemic hit and one aircraft that in particular has faced the wrath of it: the double-decker, fuel-guzzling, four-engine behemoth — Airbus 380!

An Emirates A380 (Reg: A6-EDY). Source: wikimedia (Creative Commons license)

In 2007, when Singapore Airlines operated its first A380, 9V-SKA from Singapore to Sydney, there was widespread applause. Everyone believed that the future had arrived.

Airbus’ vision was: if the industry grew the same way — doubling every 15 years, airports would, eventually, run out of passenger capacity. A large plane would help ease bottlenecks, pick up more people per flight, and prove economical for pricey landing slots at coveted airports.

The same year, Boeing launched a more economical aircraft, the 787. They believed that the future of long haul travel would be a more efficient twin-engine aircraft!

Airport congestion never happened. In fact, in Asia, airport capacity increased. And due to this pandemic, airports are empty after countries closed their borders,

The A380 may have been a wrong aircraft to build from the beginning because it could not shake off predictions that it would be an elephant in the skies (room!). From the beginning, it was long-delayed and over-budgeted.

Despite getting much fanfare and plaudits for being a technological marvel, it failed, miserably, becoming one of the shortest-lived models in production, in aviation history. The 747, first produced in 1969, is still being produced for cargo operations!

Willie Walsh, British Airways owned IAG’s boss, said the plane was good, but pricey! Emirates Tim Clark acknowledged the A380 and B747 where over, and the future belonged to the more fuel-efficient twin-engine A350 and B787. Ironically, Emirates has 115 A380s with eight more yet to arrive from Toulouse, where Airbus assembles the A380.

An aircraft, popular with passengers around the globe, failed with airlines!

But why did it fail?

Changing market conditions and aircraft size

Primarily, all airlines worldwide are switching to leaner and fuel-efficient twin-engine aircraft for long haul operations.

Back in Feb 2019, even Emirates changed their order of A380s to more lean A350 and the B787. It caused Airbus to announce the end of the A380 production line by 2020!

A380 orders vs deliveries, year-on-year. Data source: Wikipedia

Logistical nightmare

When Airbus commissioned the A380, airport infrastructure, to accommodate the behemoth had to change.

Airports widened taxiways and runways, built bigger hangars, bigger aerobridges, stronger tarmacs, even new terminals. SFO spent $2 billion to build a new terminal.

Everyone thought, with the size of the aircraft, it would be easier to declutter airports. But bigger ain’t always better. With a wingspan of 239 feet or 80 meters, it was a nightmare!

An A350 or B787 can land on smaller runways, making more airports accessible for airlines, as compared to A380s.

Even in India, only four airports could handle the aircraft: Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Bangalore.

Hyderabad received 1 A380 in its lifetime, during an air show. Bangalore, never!

Not making profits

With an A380, there was pressure to fill every seat due to the higher economics, making the aircraft economically sensitive during any downturn.

With more lean aircraft comes better operating economics, smaller capacity, lower costs. Therefore .less pressure to fill every seat. They are less sensitive to economic downturns, hence proving more reliable and sustainable.

I guess that’s the reason why more airlines are using their B787s or A350s as aviation recovers.

Maintenance

Operating costs of an A380 are ~$30,000 per hour of flight, compared to ~$15,000 for a B787.

Albeit it did see some amount of success with Emirates, with others, it failed!

Singapore Airlines has retired 4 of its early A380s and stored others till economy recovers, including 7 at Alice Springs in Australia!

Air France retired its entire fleet.

Lufthansa has retired 6 and stored 8 for the long term. They’ve even acknowledged the remaining A380 may never fly again!

Qantas sent all its A380s to Victorville for storage till 2023.

Emirates has about 102 of them still grounded, all of them parked at either Dubai Airport or Dubai World Central.

Airbus has not profited a single dollar from this aircraft. They only sold about 250 odd of them. To break even, they planned to sell 700.

Had it been successful, we may have seen more fuel-efficient like the A380neo or the A380plus!

What’s the future of the aircraft? Is there a second-hand market for it?

The only second-hand operator today, HiFly, took one of the retired Singapore Airlines A380s on board. From July 2018, as per flight-tracking data, it has not made more than 1,500 revenue of flights!

If conditions recover faster than expected, they could look to add more A380s to their fleet. With Lufthansa and Air France retiring their A380s, and Qatar, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines looking to retire older A380s, aircraft could be cheaply available for them!

What about cargo?

Back in May, Lufthansa Technik was working on converting an Airbus A380 for cargo aircraft. Since then, there has been no news on the progress!

As more A380 retire, they may be used as converted cargo freighters considering their sheer size, instead of passenger aircraft.

What if more A380 are retired or stored?

Finding parking spots will be a nightmare. Storing a 250 feet x 239 feet aircraft means reducing the number of aircraft stored at any facility.

When VCV took on storing Qantas A380, they had to move about 18 retired 747s to store 9 A380s and a handful of 777s from other airlines.

To preserve any aircraft, airlines prefer to store or retire them in arid, low-moisture environments, such as deserts due to the moisture levels!

Airbus is now planning leaner aircraft like the single-aisle A321XLR (capable of flying New Delhi to London nonstop), allowing airlines to become more flexible with expansion plans!

With aircraft innovation moving towards greener and cheaper aircraft, it is the end of the road for A380 aircraft!

We will see them still flying around the world for another two decades to come, but it proves that, bigger isn’t always better!

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