What Is The Future For The Airbus A380?

In every crisis there are opportunities. 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 realized. Now, many operators are taking the time to assess the future of their A380 aircraft.

Many airlines are now reassessing the immediate future of their A380 fleets. Photo: Peakpix.com

A380 loses the support of its biggest booster

Going into 2020, there were 234 A380s in service with 15 airlines operating them. Dubai-based Emirates has been the A380’s financial sugar daddy, 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 when Emirates boss, Tim Clark, said the A380 era was over this week, you could almost hear the A380 hanger doors around the world shuttering.

“Do I see demand for these bigger aircraft slowing, yes I do,” Mr Clark told the UAE’s The National.

“We know the A380 is over, the 747 is over … Demand will fall in the time being, the demand for the number of aeroplanes flying prior to the coronavirus will also fall, airlines will ground old aircraft and concentrate on some of the new ones coming to market.”

2020 proves a nadir for the A380

In the last month, Lufthansa has announced it is retiring its six A380s. Air France is in the process of retiring its 10 A380s with questions being raised whether any of them will ever fly again. Last week, Qantas flagged some of its A380s not returning to service.

Added to this, you have 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 being questioned.

It’s an inglorious state of being for the A380. The aircraft has only been flying for 15 years and hasn’t proved a commercial success for its manufacturer, Airbus. In contrast, the aircraft type it was meant to supersede, the Boeing 747, has been in production since 1968 and is still going (albeit at a slowing rate).

It’s debatable whether Malaysia’s A380s will ever take to the air again. Photo: Adrian Pingstone via Wikimedia Commons.

And the Boeing 747 will remain in the skies for some time. There is an active second-hand market for 747s from charter, freight, and lower-tier passenger carriers. But the future for the A380 is less assured.

While Airbus is promoting a second-hand market for the A380, the reality is there is very little interest in buying the mega jumbo, second hand or not.  Malaysia Airlines has attempted to sell its A380 aircraft without success.

Several factors are working against the A380

The problem is not so much the up-front cost. Any aircraft buyer, whether shopping for new or used aircraft, needs to have a very fat wallet. The problem is the on-going running costs of the A380 and the limited utility of the aircraft type.

For sure, in normal times, you can fill 480 odd seats on routes like London to Hong Kong, Sydney to Los Angeles, or New York to Paris. These are high traffic long-haul routes heavy with premium fare passengers. The A380 stacks up on routes like these. But 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 too.

Emirates has always been the biggest operator and supporter of the A380. Photo: nockewell1 via needpix.com

This limits the utility of the A380. 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 to fly. Run that over a 14-hour flight with a typical capacity of about 500 passengers, and you can work out the average ticket price just for the airline to breakeven.

In contrast, the 787-9 Dreamliner costs around USD$11,000 to USD$15,000 per hour to operate. Smaller aircraft like the Dreamliners are also much more flexible in terms of where they can fly into and what markets they suit. So, it’s no wonder operators prefer to fly aircraft like the 787 over the A380.

Further working against the A380 is that aircraft age, they get more expensive to maintain.

Overall, the outlook isn’t good for the A380

Overall, it isn’t an optimistic outlook for the A380. Sure, a big operator like Emirates will continue to fly them for several years to come. But the expectation is that most operators will rapidly wind down their A380 fleets in a post-pandemic flying era. Several probably won’t bring their fleets out of their temporary grounding.

With a virtually non-existent second-hand market, aside from Emirates planes, the A380 will become scarcer at airports around the world. Within a decade, they will probably be a rare sight indeed.