When the Airbus A380 was officially launched in December 2000, the manufacturer had high hopes for the aircraft. Airbus expected large hubs that move a vast amount of people in one go would become the basis of the aviation industry.
So, why did Airbus eventually cancel production of the A380 on Valentine’s Day in 2019?
In part, the industry pivoted towards direct, point-to-point traffic that allowed planes like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, as well as the Boeing 777, to thrive. The four engines mounted on the A380’s wings were detrimental, with operating costs, in addition to the high acquisition cost of such a large aircraft, forced airlines to think twice before ordering the Super Jumbo.
But lately, particularly after a difficult peak travel season in 2022, airlines once again have been considering the Airbus A380 to provide capacity to match the demand. The aircraft’s capacity numbers have grown Year-on-Year (YoY) and Month-on-Month (MoM) globally and are expected to continue growing, as more and more carriers are looking to restore the double-deck aircraft for the upcoming summer in 2023.
Does that mean that the Airbus A380 is experiencing a resurgence and we are potentially seeing the growth phase of the Super Jumbo?
Airlines restoring the Airbus A380
In total, 14 airlines have ordered the Airbus A380 since its official announcement on December 19, 2000, and have continued to do so following the announcement on February 14, 2019, that the manufacturer would be canceling production of the aircraft.
Out of the 14, including the 15th operator, Hi Fly Malta, which took over an ex-Singapore Airlines airframe, eight are currently flying the double-decker. Additionally, Lufthansa and Etihad Airways have begun the process of restoring the type after several years in storage.
Lufthansa already moved two Airbus A380s out of its long-term storage location at Teruel Airport (TEV), Spain, for maintenance checks. Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE)-based Etihad Airways flew a single Super Jumbo out of TEV on January 30, 2023.
In total, Etihad plans to restore four aircraft of the type, while Lufthansa initially planned to restore three and, if there is enough demand, re-add five additional examples to its fleet in 2024. However, according to comments made by the German airline’s CEO Carsten Spohr during the group’s Q3 2022 results presentation, Lufthansa “will need to bring that number up [due to] the demand we see and also for operational reasons, three is not enough”.
Air France, China Southern Airlines, Malaysia Airways, and Thai Airways have either retired the aircraft completely or have not announced plans to restore them back to service. Previously, a Thai Airways executive indicated that the carrier was deliberating whether to bring back the type. Hi Fly’s Maltese subsidiary ended its brief flirtation with the A380 in December 2020. China Southern Airlines’ last two Super Jumbos flew to Victorville Southern California Logistics Airport (VCV), their permanent storage place, on December 21, 2022.
Demand for more A380s?
As airlines bring back more A380s, one executive, who has been a long-standing advocate of the aircraft, warned that if airlines begin to phase out the Super Jumbo and the Boeing 747s, fares will rise.
The executive was Emirates president Tim Clark, who spoke to AeroTime in November 2022. Clark warned that with all the four-engine aircraft gone from the skies while demand continues to skyrocket “and there are no such big aircraft anymore, capacity will fall, fares will rise”.
“Perhaps it was a bit over-successful for Emirates, and there was a view among my airline community competitor friends that the fewer A380 there was in the toolbox of airlines like Emirates, the better, because it was outperforming so many of our competitor’s operations,” Clark continued. According to the executive, if infrastructure development at Dubai’s airports was to develop as fast as Emirates wanted it to, “then we would have 200 A380s flying”.
“That scared the pants off everybody,” Clark concluded.
Yet the aircraft is not perfect. Clark also pointed out that the double-decker has engines that were “designed in the 1990s for the 1990s and the early part of the last decade”.
Engine technology has come a long way, including the newest engines such as the Airbus A350’s Rolls-Royce Trent XWB, or the Boeing 777X’s GE9X. For example, the Trent XWB’s Bypass ratio is 9.6:1, while the Trent 900’s, which powers the Airbus A380, is between 8.5 and 8.7:1. In layman’s terms, the bigger the bypass ratio, the more fuel efficient the engine is.
Fuel prices have always hindered the economics of the A380, as the more efficient twin-engine aircraft burned much less fuel, in part because they had fewer engines, and no aircraft comes close to the Super Jumbo’s weight. The Airbus A380’s Maximum Zero Fuel Weight (MZFW), the aircraft’s weight without fuel and oil, it is pretty heavy, to say the least. The number varies between weight variants, namely between 361 tons (795,869 pounds) and 373 tons (822,324 lbs.). The 747-8I’s MZFW is 295.2 tons (651,000 lbs.), for example.
And even if crude oil prices have significantly decreased since their peak of $120.61 in June 2022, they are still susceptible to price swings and political developments. One case could be the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)+ deciding to drastically cut oil production, reducing oil supply globally, even if demand continues to rise.
But airlines have little choice in terms of how to prepare for the upcoming peak travel season. Airbus and Boeing are lagging behind delivery schedules, as the ongoing supply chain issues have hindered both – and only – manufacturers of widebody aircraft from delivering twin-aisle jets on time. Even if airlines did want more large aircraft on the market, Airbus and/or Boeing’s hands are tied. Factory tooling of the A380 and B747 has been or is going to be replaced with the A321neo and 737 MAX assembly lines, respectively.
And yet, the love story between airlines and the A380 is likely to continue for years, even if airlines will be unable to officially renew their affection for the Super Jumbo.