Qantas has surprised many airline industry observers with a decision to bring back 10 of its 12 Airbus A380s. The Australian airline has brought forward the aircraft’s re-entry into service date and now plans to have five A380s in the air by mid-2022.
A big plane with a big environmental footprint
But the A380 is a big plane with an oversized environmental footprint. On that point alone, how does Qantas, an airline that proudly spruiks its eco-credentials, justify bringing the jumbo back into service?
This is especially so when the refurbished A380s re-entering service will contain fewer seats than before (a refit topped up the number of premium seats at the expense of main cabin seats, reducing the overall seat count). The outcome is the A380’s emissions per seat will increase.
There’s a simple reason why the Qantas A380 is coming back – the airline believes it can fill the plane. Speaking at a CAPA conference on Tuesday, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said it was a matter of meeting demand. But he admitted Qantas was conscious of the A380’s environmental footprint.
“The environment and what we do on it is the next big item and the biggest challenge for us – we are very conscious of that,” Mr Joyce said.
Qantas has spent a lot of money on their A380s
After a lengthy sojourn at Victorville, California, the first Qantas A380 returned to Sydney last month. As more A380s arrive back, Qantas will resume operating the aircraft on the Sydney – Los Angeles – Sydney run in late March and Sydney – Singapore – London – Singapore – Sydney from in July.
Timelines have proved a constantly changing beast, but right now, Qantas plans to have five A380s in the air by July, six by the end of 2022, and the remaining four arriving throughout 2023.
While several other airlines have withdrawn their A380 fleets from service, Qantas maintains the A380 can work well on long-haul routes. The plane has always proved popular with passengers, and Qantas was busy refitting its A380s with the airline’s most up-to-date seats when they decided to ground the fleet in 2020.
“We spent a lot of money on them,” admitted Mr Joyce earlier this year. In addition to the cabin overhaul, Qantas spent US$1 billion on fleet write-downs last year that included the A380s. That charge was a big short term financial hit for Qantas but makes operating A380 flights in the future much cheaper. That significantly bolsters the business case for the A380’s future at Qantas.
Hard to avoid the environmental elephant in the room
But it’s difficult to avoid the elephant in the room – the A380’s environmental impact. Qantas plans to be carbon neutral by 2050. One potential short-term solution is carbon offsets, but Mr Joyce has mixed views on this solution.
“There is a lot of bad stuff out there that’s given carbon offsets a bad reputation,” Alan Joyce told CAPA. He says the Qantas carbon offset program is high quality but expensive, adding 11% of customers across the entire Qantas network now buy carbon offsets when booking a flight.
As far as medium-term aviation environmental fixes go, Mr Joyce is a fan of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and says an announcement on the subject from the airline is imminent.
“We think that (SAF) has to be the way we get through this,” Mr Joyce said. “You have to use all of the weapons in your arsenal to minimize your impact.”
But what (if any) role the A380s will play in Qantas’ impending trials and takeup of sustainable aviation fuels remains unknown.