A lot has happened over the past year in aviation. And much more will change as the market hopefully improves going forward. The impact on quadjets, though, is likely to be permanent. Many A380s have been retired already, and over the coming decade, they will become a rarer sight. There is currently a very limited second-hand market, but still a few possibilities other than scrap for these great aircraft.
The fall of the A380
The Airbus A380 is a great aircraft and a significant achievement in aviation. It can carry more passengers long-haul than any aircraft so far – and likely for some time to come.
It has, though not worked out as well as hope for Airbus or airlines. Airbus bet big on the popularity of hub-based operating models, but more airlines have moved to point-to-point. And while the A380 has been popular at busy airports, allowing airlines to carry more passengers with each valuable slot, its size has limited use at many other airports. But the rise in efficiency and capability of twin-engine aircraft has really sealed the fate for quadjets such as the A380.
After Emirates reduced its order, Airbus announced the end of the program in 2019, with Emirates’ last aircraft to be constructed in 2021. It had a total of 251 orders from 14 airlines.
Retiring aircraft early
Even before the pandemic hit, the A380 was in decline. Several airlines (including Hong Kong Airlines, Kingfisher, and Virgin Atlantic) canceled orders before taking delivery. Others, including Qantas and Emirates, reduced their orders.
Singapore Airlines retired its first aircraft in 2017. And Emirates followed in October 2020 (it was planned before the 2020 slowdown).
And since the start of the pandemic, many aircraft have been grounded. Some have already been retired; many others will never return to service.
- Air France announced early in the crisis that it would retire its A380 fleet.
- Lufthansa has retired six aircraft and certainly won’t return others to service any time soon.
- Qatar Airways’ CEO called the A380 “the airline’s biggest mistake” and has already confirmed the impairment of five aircraft.
- Etihad’s CEO has expressed the opinion that they are commercially unviable.
Limited second-hand market
The obvious option for relatively young aircraft retiring early is to move to other airlines. This is seen across the world with retiring aircraft. Many airlines prefer to keep a flagship fleet of younger aircraft, and with this likely have lower operating costs and maintenance requirements. At the same time, other airlines are happy to take cheaper aircraft and keep them in service for longer.
So far, we have not seen this with the A380. The move away from high capacity four-engine aircraft is well established, and no airline has been keen to expand in this area. Many smaller airlines, of course, would not have a use for such a larger aircraft in any case.
But all hope may not be lost. The A380 remains a great aircraft, and with a declining second-hand price, we may see future uptake. As the price drops and the market recovers, perhaps there will be interest. In early 2021, the price of a secondhand A380 had fallen 50% – the most of any aircraft type.
In March 2020, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury spoke about how he still saw a future for the A380. He cited their popularity with passengers and unrivaled space for additional cabin features as leading reasons.
And Emirates CEO Sir Tim Clark lent his support to the A380 recently. In an interview with Simple Flying, he stood by his fleet, expecting it to remain in use for at least the next 15 years. Likewise, he cites popularity with passengers as a key factor in its success. With ongoing delays to Boeing’s 777X program, they could be increasingly important.
Emirates, though has a unique relationship with the A380, having ordered 123 of the 251 aircraft delivered. It operates a true hub and spoke network and serves many busy slot-constrained airports where the A380 excels. It also benefits from the economics of such a large fleet.
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If one airline cannot justify regular A380 operation, charter use for specialized flights may work better. The only second-hand A380 deal so far was with the Portuguese charter airline Hi Fly. It took one A380 second hand from Singapore Airlines and was used for many different charter operations. At one point, it was keen on taking a second aircraft, but in November 2020, it announced it would retire its only aircraft.
There are no signs yet of other charter or leasing companies being interested. High-capacity pilgrimage routes are one option that was explored. Malaysia Airlines, under its sub-brand Amal, tried this for the Kuala Lumpur to Mecca route. This used a standard fitted Malaysian Airlines A380, but specialized use could see the A380 carry as many as 853 passengers.
Use for freight
You would assume that such a large aircraft would be great for freight use or conversion. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case. The A380 was originally planned with a freighter version, but Airbus dropped this to prioritize passenger aircraft deliveries following delays in the program. There was plenty of interest and orders for 27 aircraft. With a payload of 150 tonnes, it would have been the largest freighter on the market apart from the one-off Antonov An-225.
Part of the problem with the freighter version was the aircraft size. There was simply too much space to be filled with cargo, and the aircraft would most likely reach its maximum load with space remaining. There were also loading issues with the two decks. Hi Fly did try to convert the aircraft for light freight use but saw limited demand.
There have once again been discussions about freighter use in 2021, though. According to the publication FreightWaves, Airbus is exploring with airlines the possibility of modifying the aircraft for cargo use, and possibly as a passenger and freight combi version.
Such a conversion is said to be technically possible but would take time to develop. It seems unlikely to be a solution for immediately retiring aircraft, but maybe it will become more attractive once greater numbers of aircraft are retiring from the Emirates fleet.
VIP or private use
We would all love to see an A380 modified for private use. The onboard space would allow some great facilities to be installed, and with fewer fittings and passengers, the range would be extended (this could be at least 17,000 kilometers according to Airbus data). But it has not happened yet. The issues which have held it back so far commercially are just as relevant for VIP use:
- It is simply too big. There is a limit to what private users needs – and the 747 is already very large.
- Airport restrictions due to its wingspan would be even more limiting than for the passenger version. Airlines can schedule on certain routes, whereas a private operator would want more flexibility.
- As with the passenger version, operating costs and efficiency would work against it. A 767 or even a new 777X VIP jet would be much more efficient.
- And as a final consideration, Boeing has been ahead in the very limited large VIP aircraft market for some time with the 747. Several clients ordered replacements with the 747-8, and the A380 would have been a hard sell.
Despite the challenges, there have been some attempts. One aircraft was ordered new from Airbus in 2007 by His Royal Highness Prince Al Waleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud of Saudi Arabia but never completed. This was planned to be a luxurious affair with three lift-connected floors featuring a concert hall with stage and grand piano, 20 VIP suites, a car garage, and a Turkish bath.
For government use, it was briefly considered as a replacement for the current VC-25A modified 747-400s that serve as Air Force One. However, Airbus declined to bid, as it felt that moving production to the US for just two aircraft would be prohibitively expensive.
And Geneva-based company Sparfell & Partners attempted to market four second-hand A380s as conversions to private jets. These were proposed with a VIP conversion of either both decks or just the upper deck, but there was no takeup.
Price here is likely to be a significant issue. With the second-hand value of the A380 already dropping by 50%, it gets ever more appealing. Perhaps we will see VIP users being tempted at some point.
Scrap or storage
If other uses cannot be storage or scrap become the only options. If the market shows signs of improvement, scrapping aircraft may be delayed. But storage and preservation is an expensive option if there are no signs of change in the market.
Scrapping an aircraft this size if of course, no simple task. But there is plenty of value in it, with many parts being recycled for further use. The engines, of course, are the most valuable, and with aircraft scrapped early, these are still very valuable. But parts of the interiors, avionics, wings, and landing gear can also be easily sold. Anything that remains will be broken down and recycled.
It is a shame to see so many A380s retiring early and not find new uses. Do you think this will change over the coming years, or are most aircraft going to head to the scrapyard? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.