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The painful demise of the A380 programme

Updated 24 Aug 2020
An A380 Airbus superjumbo sits on the tarmac where it is dismantled at the site of French recycling and storage aerospace company Tarmac Aerosave in Tarbes, southwest France, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau
An A380 Airbus superjumbo sits on the tarmac where it is dismantled at the site of French recycling and storage aerospace company Tarmac Aerosave in Tarbes, southwest France, February 14, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

It is said that in every crisis there are opportunities of doing reforms. The aviation industry is also entering into a phase of reforms following the disaster caused due to Covid-19. The industry which was once expanding aggressively has started to contract in terms of costs, services, passenger loads, staff members, aircrafts etc. The aviation industry was already in a contractionary phase before Covid19 due to the downturn in the industry but now it is decreasing in size aggressively.

The aviation industry grew rapidly following the recovery from the financial crisis of 2008. One of the salient features of the industry’s rise during that period was the introduction of the Airbus 380(A380) . The A380 gave the airlines an opportunity to make travelling by air luxurious as it offered a lot of space in all the cabins. The airlines introduced features such as onboard showers, apartments, private rooms and extra space in the economy class cabins as well. Unfortunately, this rise did not last for a longer period of time and the decline has led to the painful death of the A380 programme . The downturn in the aviation industry has forced Airbus to announce the closure of the A380 programme in 2021, much earlier than its expected lifetime. Following its "painful" decision to close the programme, Airbus will make the final A380 deliveries in 2021, with around 250 aircraft built. The quick death of the A380 can be deduced from the fact that there was a backlog of 87 firm orders of the A380 in 2019. This has now reduced significantly to only 17 aircraft following the order cancellations that came amid the decision to end production. According to experts, the decision by Airbus to end the A380 programme was the only logical option, given the almost nonexistent market faced by its sales team in recent years.

Timeline of the A380 programme
Timeline of the A380 programme

Covid19 has led to an aggressive process of reform in the aviation industry. With the majority of airlines around the world grounding most of their fleets, the current crisis is providing time for some clear thinking about their future needs. Foremost for some airlines is the vexed question of what to do with their A380 fleets. The cumbersome and thirsty aircraft have never seen their true potential realised. Now, many operators are taking the time to assess the future of their A380 aircraft.

Going into 2020, there were 234 A380s in service with 15 airlines operating them. Dubai-based Emirates has been the A380’s financial backbone, operating 115 of the type. That airline has long been a staunch booster of the A380 even as other airlines went decidedly lukewarm on it but even Emirates has reconsidered its preference of the A380. The airline once had more than a hundred A380s on order. This number has now gone to eight mainly due to a large number of order cancellations and converting the orders to dual engined and smaller aircrafts such as the Airbus 350. Emirates has not only cancelled a large number of A380s but they’re expected to retire 40 percent of the A380s in their existing fleet. This will help the airline to cut down their costs but is potentially a fatal blow for the A380 programme

Not just Emirates but other operators of the aircraft type such as Lufthansa has announced the retirement of six A380s which is half of their total A380 fleet. Air France has completed the process of retiring their entire A380 fleet, which were initially scheduled to fly till 2024. Reportedly, Qantas has also permanently grounded some of its A380s. Qatar Airways has also grounded their entire A380 fleet till at least 2022 and they aren’t sure if their A380s will return back to the skies or not. The company believes that it is not commercially or environmentally justifiable to operate such a large aircraft in the current market.

Added to this, several A380 operators whose very survival is threatened by the current travel downturn. Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines each have six A380s, Hi Fly Malta has one A380. The ongoing survival of these aircraft is also being questioned.

One of the major reasons that have led to the quick demise of the A380 is the on-going running costs of the A380 and the limited utility of the aircraft type.

In normal times, airlines can fill 480 odd seats on routes like London to Hong Kong, Dubai to London, Dubai to New YorkSydney to Los Angeles,New York to Paris etc. These are high traffic long-haul routes heavy with premium fare passengers. The A380 fills up on routes like these. However most routes don’t have these characteristics. In addition, a lot of airports don’t have the infrastructure to support an A380, further limiting where it can fly to. What further limits an airline’s appetite for the A380 is the ongoing costs associated with operating the aircraft type. The typical A380 costs between USD$26,000 and USD$29,000 per hour to fly. Run that over a long haul flight with a capacity of about 500 passengers, and the average ticket price can be worked out for the airline to breakeven. At a time where airlines cannot charge a higher premium due to so much competition, breaking even with an A380 is nearly impossible.

In contrast, the Airbus 350(A350) costs nearly half of what the A380 costs to operate. The A350s consumes half the fuel per block hour compared to the A380, which translates to a difference of 20 tons of CO2 per block hour. Aircrafts like the A350 are also much more flexible in terms of where they can fly into and what markets they suit. This is one of the major reasons why operators prefer to fly aircraft like the A350 over the A380 and for this purpose, airlines like Emirates and British Airways are planning to replace their A380 fleets with the A350s. Further working against the A380 is that as the age of the A380 increases , it gets even more expensive to maintain and operate the aircraft type.

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A350 takes off at the aircraft builder's headquarters in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: An Airbus A350 takes off at the aircraft builder's headquarters in Colomiers near Toulouse, France, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo

Overall, the future outlook for the A380 is very depressing . A big operator like Emirates will continue to fly them for several years to come because the A380 is nearly half of their entire fleet, they do have loads on various A380 sectors and majority are relatively new so they can’t retire the entire fleet in a hurry. Having said that, the expectation is that most operators will quickly retire their A380 fleets permanently in the post-pandemic flying era.

In clearer words, aside from Emirates planes and maybe it’s Middle Eastern competitors , the A380 will become scarcer at airports around the world. Within a decade, they will probably be a rare sight. This clearly shows that the A380 is headed towards a quick and an extremely painful demise.

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Moiz Ur Rehman

The author is a student of law who is currently doing his LLB(Hons) from the University of London.The views expressed are his own and do not represent that of his institute. He tweets @MoizUrRehman_