Air France announced yesterday that the retirement of their A380 fleet will be completed by 2022. This is much sooner than previously expected and will leave the airline short on long haul capacity. So what’s the plan for the A380’s replacement?
Alongside the announcement of its massive order for up to 120 A220 aircraft, Air France yesterday noted that they are planning to phase out the Airbus A380 by 2022.
At the meeting where the A220 was approved, the Air France-KLM board of directors also approved plans to retire the remaining seven A380s in the Air France fleet in the next three years. Three had already been agreed to be phased out previously. Of the final seven, five are owned by Air France and two are leased.
In their announcement on the decision, Air France stated that, “The current competitive environment limits the markets in which the A380 can profitably operate”. But why the rush to retirement, and what will Air France replace the A380 with?
Why is the A380 being retired?
As Air France push towards a more profitable fleet strategy, the retirement of the A380 was a foregone conclusion. Back in November, Air France-KLM Group CEO Benjamin Smith noted the culling of at least 50% of the fleet, the five aircraft being those which were leased.
In June, there were rumblings about early retirement of the rest of the fleet, and by July a date of 2024 had been mooted as the potential phase-out timescale for all A380s belonging to the carrier. While we all know the intrinsic problems associated with operating the giant jumbo, but with Air France’s A380s averaging just 8.6 years old, why the rush to phase them out?
The urgency comes down to passenger experience; the Air France A380s don’t have lie flat seats in business class. In fact, the cabins, in general, are woefully outdated and making Air France look bad on the global stage. As such, the airline has two choices – either stump up for a cabin refit at great expense for the short time they remain in their fleet or simply get rid of them as quickly as possible.
At one point, it looked like we’d see the new interiors at least on the five A380s owned by Air France, with refurbishment scheduled for next year. However, now it seems the airline will simply prepare to say goodbye to the double-decker plane instead.
What will replace the A380?
Retiring the A380 will open the door for the airline to acquire modern, fuel-efficient alternatives to the superjumbo. The Air France press release states that,
“The Air France KLM Group is studying possible replacement options for these aircraft with new generation aircraft currently on the market.”
Clearly, the carrier will be looking at twin-jet widebodies to plug the gap, and have already started acquiring some of the latest generation aircraft for its fleet. Air France has nine 787-9s in service and one left to be delivered. They did have another six on Boeing’s order books, but these are now planned for delivery to KLM instead.
The first A350-900 will be delivered to Air France in September, with a further 20 on order from Airbus. As well as these, Air France is set to receive the seven A350s that KLM had on order, for a total fleet of 28.
However, even with 10 Dreamliners and 28 A350s, there’s still a bit of a gap in long haul capacity. Air France need most of these planes to allow them to phase out older Boeing 777s, so as much as these could be viewed as replacements for the A380s, it seems Air France is holding back a little here.
Perhaps they’re awaiting the arrival of the forthcoming Boeing 777X to make a decision on that, or are scrutinizing finances to see if they can justify the extra expense of the A350-1000. Either way, with such a short timeline to the A380s retirement, their long haul fleet strategy is bound to become clear pretty soon.