Coronavirus has hastened the demise of the Airbus A380 – the world’s largest airliner – as the aviation industry scrambles to adapt to lower demand for air travel, which has essentially made the double-decker super-jumbo a plane out of time.
The A380 made its maiden flight 15 years ago on 27 April 2005, after more than a decade of development. Two years later, it entered service as a direct competitor to Boeing’s long-haul dominating 747 jumbo jet.
Although the plane is certified to carry up to 853 passengers, A380-operating airlines have never taken advantage of that maximum capacity and cabin layouts rarely stray above 500 seats.
The aircraft’s reliance on economies of scale has put it directly in the coronavirus firing line, as airlines struggle to fill even their smallest planes due to pandemic lockdown measures and weak consumer demand.
For most, it would be a loss-maker in the short- or even medium-term.
Air France announced last week that the temporary grounding of its nine A380s would become permanent, bringing forward the fleet’s retirement date by a full two years. The decision is set to hit the airline with €500m write-down costs.
Lufthansa will also reduce its fleet size and plans only to operate the aircraft from its Munich base if it actually does return to service. The German carrier’s technical division is currently converting an A380 for use as a cargo plane, although the client is being kept under wraps.
Airbus had originally planned to offer a tailor-made freighter – known as the A380F – but never put the plane into production. The frequency of passenger flights, which carry a lot of cargo along with baggage, made the project a non-starter.
Aviation analysts contacted by EURACTIV suggested that the standard A380 could have a future as a cargo hauler but warned that conversion costs and cheaper options mean the idea is unlikely in the long-run.
Other airlines that operate the aircraft, such as British Airways, Korean and Qantas – are yet to make it clear what fate awaits the super-jumbo. The latter has already paused a costly upgrade of onboard business and premium class facilities.
Airbus announced in early 2019 that it would cease production of the A380 in 2021, after top customer Emirates scaled back a large order of planes. The Gulf airline – also hard-hit by the pandemic – is now contemplating whether another reduction will be necessary.
The Toulouse-based aerospace firm injected some €25 billion into the A380 programme, a sum of money Airbus has acknowledged will not be recouped, despite the massive plane establishing itself as a favourite among travellers.
Plans to set up a profitable second-hand market for the aircraft also look set to be damaged by the virus outbreak’s impact. One A380 has already been scrapped for spare parts and materials rather than leased or sold to another airline.
Global disruption caused by the pandemic is predicted to keep aviation demand below 2019 levels for at least two years, according to industry groups and airlines, meaning high-capacity aircraft are at the bottom of priority lists.
Ultimately, the super-jumbo has also paid the price of Airbus’ own success, after its A350 aircraft won over airlines around the world with its mix of long-haul capacity and high fuel-efficiency.
Although the “gentle green giant” A380 had the potential to be an environmental frontrunner in the industry, as experts at the International Council on Clean Transportation point out, the fact airlines never made use of its full capacity doomed it to emit more than other planes.
The impact of its accelerated demise on Airbus jobs is still yet to emerge clearly. When the firm announced production would cease, then-CEO Tom Enders said that units dedicated to A380 parts would be reassigned.
Job losses are looming because of the pandemic’s effect on Airbus’ order book but the aerospace giant is still in talks about where the cuts should be made. Its engine supplier, Rolls Royce, has already announced that up to 9,000 positions will go.
The A380 is already being talked about in the same category as Concorde – the supersonic jet that was retired in 2003 – given its technological superiority and record-holding attributes.
Both were also taken out of service quicker than expected due to crisis. A tragic crash in 2000 and the effect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on demand for transatlantic flights accelerated the Concorde programme’s end.
Life is not quite over yet for the A380 but its long-term future has been written in the skies for quite some time. Coronavirus has only made its fate all the more clear.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]