When the coronavirus crisis hit the aviation industry with low demand, the widebodies were the first aircraft to go into storage. As the situation stabilized and started to improve, both the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A380 took to the skies again. Which one of the two giants returned faster to service?
The fate of the A380 was already uncertain prior to the crisis, following the decision of Airbus to discontinue production in 2020. As for the Boeing 747, whose production has been in jeopardy since 2016, the end of the program was eventually confirmed by the manufacturer in July 2020. The last Queen of the Skies is set to roll out in 2022.
When the air transport industry is facing an all-time low and carriers are aiming to reduce their costs, operating four-engined giants has become cumbersome.
As soon as he was appointed CEO of Air France in 2018, Benjamin Smith voiced his intent to eventually retire the A380 due to an unfavorable competitive market. With the coronavirus forcing the French flag carrier to ground its fleet, Smith pulled the plug early. On May 20, 2020, the group announced “the definitive end of Air France Airbus A380 operations.”
Similarly, Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) reduced its fleet by six aircraft at the start of the pandemic. Now the remaining 14 Super Jumbos are stored for the long term and only a “surprising” recovery could lead to their reactivation.
Other carriers have found alternative ways to generate revenue using the Super Jumbos. All Nippon Airways (ANA) has been operating special Airbus A380 ‘flights to nowhere’ using its turtle-themed aircraft. By the end of October 2020, Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY) will offer a “memorable dining experience” in one of its A380s parked in Changi Airport (SIN).
So far, only three operators chose to resume commercial flights using the king of the skies: Emirates, Korean Air, and China Southern Airlines (ZNH) . At the time this article was written, five A380 aircraft were flying commercial flights.
The situation is hardly better for the Boeing 747. For Qantas, the coronavirus crisis got the best of the Queen of the skies. In July 2020, the Australian carrier retired its Jumbo Jet with an homage flight in the shape of a kangaroo.
British Airways took a similar decision. On October 8, 2020, the airline put an end to the aircraft’s 50 years of service with a synchronized take-off of its last two 747s in the London fog of Heathrow airport (LHR).
Unlike the A380, the global number of Boeing 747s currently flying reaches in the hundreds. However, most of those flights are actually dedicated to cargo. On October 12, 2020, Flightradar24 pointed out that out of 154 Jumbo Jets flying, only four were carrying passengers.
With IATA predicting that the long-haul industry will not completely recover before 2024, it might take a while for both royals to fully take back to the skies. And with the arrival of more efficient widebodies on the market, more retirements could be around the corner. In October 2020, Etihad Airways removed the A380 from its booking site until September 2021, with either the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner or the 777-300ER taking its place.