Right Plane, Wrong Airline: Why Air France Doesn’t Want The A380

The A380 is a firm favorite with passengers and avgeeks alike, but for airlines, it’s something of a different story. Big, expensive and impossible to fill, its rapidly being phased out of fleets all over the world. Simple Flying heard from CEO Ben Smith at a recent IATA conference about why it just doesn’t work for Air France.

Air France AIrbus A380 on runway
Air France will retire its Airbus A380’s by 2022. Photo: Air France

No love lost

Air France has made no secret of the fact that it has fallen out of love with the Airbus A380. The airline plans to phase out the type by 2022 at the latest, and it seems that the next two years can’t move along soon enough.

At the recent IATA Wings of Change Europe conference in Berlin, Air France-KLM Group CEO Ben Smith talked about the decision to end Air France’s long relationship with the giant jumbo. He said,

“It’s a tough airlplane. At airports to board and to deplane takes a long time with special bridges required to accommodate the size. It takes a long time to get your bags, it uses more fuel. Operationally, it’s not the best airplane to use.”

Ben Smith IATA
Ben Smith speaking at IATA. Photo: Simple Flying

Air France has 10 A380s in its fleet, something which it is looking to change as quickly as possible. Its impending retirement is a decision which is wholeheartedly supported by CEO Anne Rigail. Speaking to Airline Ratings recently, she dubbed the type “totally obsolete, too expensive, too big”. Damming criticism certainly, and something which was largely echoed by Smith in Berlin.

Why Air France can’t keep the A380

To cut a long story short, the aircraft is costing them money. It requires special bridges; ramp staff need special training and its four engines make it expensive to fly. Not only is it costing Air France money now, but it also needs to have more money spent on it in order to stay competitive with other airlines. Smith commented,

“Two of our big competitors who also have the plane already have fantastic cabins … In order to spend that money [on refurbishing the cabins], we would have to have routes on which we could use that airplane.”

Air France A380 business
Air France’s A380s need modernization of the cabins. Photo: Air France

And refurbishing an A380 is not a job that comes cheap. Smith mentioned a cost of some €35m ($38m) per aircraft, which is clearly a substantial investment for a plane that’s not really a great fit for the airline.

And it’s not only the refurbishment that is a pressing burden on Air France. In order to keep the A380s flying, a heavy maintenance check is due on all ten aircraft in the next couple of years. This in itself can generate costs running into the millions, not to mention the loss of capacity by taking the aircraft out of service.

A great aircraft, just not for them

Despite all the criticism for the A380, Smith also admitted that it’s a great aircraft in the right circumstances. He commented,

“It obviously has a special role in airports which are congested. And it’s a great airplane for airlines that require it to answer a specific need. But for us, the airport is not full … [We have] four parallel runways, which still have capacity. For most of our main destinations, we still have the slots and the capacity to offer the frequencies that we want.”

The A380 won’t be seen in Air France colors for much longer. Photo: AIr France.

For Air France, the A380 just doesn’t make any sense. In fact, for the majority of its operators, the giant jumbo is fast becoming irrelevant in the current climate. As CEO Rigail said to Airline Ratings,

“When the A380 came to Air France in 2009, it replaced two aircraft types, so on the cost side, it wasn’t too bad. Since the efficiency of the A350 and the 787 is the same, but with less capacity and more flexibility, you can put them on any route. So, of course, the A380 is no longer useful.”

It will be a sad day when the A380 comes into land in its Air France livery for the very last time, at least for its passengers and fans. But, for Air France, it’s an outdated airframe that’s hemorrhaging money. Despite all their niceties about the type, it’s clear they can’t wait to see the back of the expensive (and expansive) beast.