Expedited Descent – How 4-Engined Jets Slid From Favour In 2020

While jets with four engines were always going to lose out to the rise of more fuel-efficient, less maintenance-expensive twinjet widebodies, the events of 2020 sent them into retirement at breakneck speed. While some airlines remain committed to the A380, let’s take a look at what happened as carriers were forced to adapt their fleets in anticipation of lower passenger demand for years to come.

British Airways 747 taking off from JFK
Many a quadjet has flown off into the sunset in the past year. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

An abrupt end and speedy exit for many

The trend to release the quadjets from their passenger duties was clear already pre-pandemic. However, the precipitous drop in demand caused by the COVID-19 crisis and ensuing travel restrictions saw airlines retire their four-engined jets left, right, and center.

With most of them routinely configured to carry close to 500 passengers, it makes little sense to operate them in a market where demand is predicted to remain stunted for another three years when the intention to retire them by that time has already been set.

Long-standing relationships between airlines and their iconic long-haul jets such as the Queen of the Skies came to an abrupt halt over the past few months. Some newer superjumbo couplings that never really settled were also cut short.

While a lucky few have found new life and purpose as cargo carriers, the fate of most of the Airbus A340s, A380s, and Boeing 747s to have exited airline fleets this year is most likely sealed.

The Boeing 747

The Queen of the Skies will be much-missed by travelers and crew alike. British Airways had initially intended to retire its entire 747 fleet by 2024 and replace them with Boeing 777Xs. Meanwhile, the global health crisis, which sent the world into turmoil at the beginning of the year, sped up the plans by four years. BA retired the last of its long-serving Queens on December 11th, with the new Triple Seven still a long way out.

Qantas Buenos Aires Getty
Qantas also waved goodbye to its 747s this year. Photo: Getty Images

KLM and Qantas planned to retire their 747s in 2021, on their respective 50th anniversary with the type. However, 2020 had other plans, and both airlines said goodbye to their jumbo jets just shy of the half-a-century mark.

KLM retired its final passenger 747 in October and Qantas in July, the latter drawing a precise depiction of its kangaroo symbol in the sky as it was leaving Australia. TUI subsidiary Corsair also parted ways with its three 747s a year earlier than planned.

The A380

Airbus’ double-decker superjumbo garnered plenty of excitement with airlines when it was first introduced. However, apart from Emirates, which has claimed other carriers are not operating it properly, it fell out of favor rather quickly. While its departure from several fleets was already in the works before the year began, 2020 has sped up the A380’s retirement as one of the youngest types ever.

Emirates, China Southern, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Korean Air, and Qantas are likely to hold on to at least some of their A380s. Meanwhile, things remain uncertain for British Airways, Asiana, Qatar, and Etihad.

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THAI Airways recently posted two of its superjumbos for sale. Air France retired its entire fleet of ten A380s in May. Lufthansa has all of its seven of the type in long-term storage in Spain, from where it is unclear whether or not they will ever return to service.

Air France Airbus A380-861 F-HPJG
Air France started the year with ten A380s and will end it with none. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | JFKJets.com

The A340

A longer serving Airbus long-haul quadjet also exited several fleets during the year that passed. Lufthansa still operates a fleet of 17 A340-300s but retired all of the 17 stretched A340-600s it still had from February to April this year.

SAS retired the last of its A340s on December 1st. Iberia said goodbye to its final aircraft of the type in August, five years sooner than originally intended.

Virgin A340
Virgin Atlantic was among the carriers to wave goodbye to the A340 this year. Photo: Getty Images

Virgin Atlantic sent the last of its A340s to storage by the end of March. Some of them have gone on to serve with other airlines, such as Iran’s Mahan Air, and some have been reconfigured for cargo. Most, however, have been scrapped.

Which iconic quadjet will you miss the most? Let us know in the comments!