Didn’t COVID-19 kill the jumbo jet? Not so fast.
With the end of COVID and the return of mass tourism, mothballed Airbus A380s are starting to make an improbable comeback.
At the height of the pandemic, just one of over 200 Airbus A380 aircraft was said to be in service. The rest were grounded, dispatched to aviation boneyards like Mojave, or scrapped. The era of the jumbo giant was apparently over.
Air travel dropped more than 60% during the first year of COVID. In the first months of the lockdowns imposed by the world’s major cities, flights dropped by as much as 96%. (Some claimed a silver lining, as ultrafine particle pollution dropped 48%.)
With few planes flying, jumbo jets were the first to go into mothballs or to the wrecker’s yard. There was no need to crew and fuel a jumbo jet for a flight with 50 people.
The pandemic proved the end for many agining jumbo jets. A searing picture went over the wires of one of Sir Richard Branson’s signature Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747s in a wrecking yard. It lacked wings and windows, but still featured an image of performer Dita Von Teese as nose art.
Airbus ended manufacture of the A380 in 2021, with just 252 of the 500 passenger double-deckers built. The plane required a crew of 23 (two pilots and 21 flight attendants), special airport gates, strengthened runways for its million-pound take-off weight, and plenty of kerosene for its four thirsty engines. Airbus once claimed that the A380 offered “lower fuel consumption and significantly improved CO2 emissions per passenger kilometer,” but that claim rested on the aircraft always flying full, which was certainly not always the case.
But volume travel is back. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicted earlier this year that global air traffic level will reach more than 95% of pre-pandemic levels in 2023. Some 4.35 billion people are expected to travel in 2023, close to the 4.54 billion flyers in the previous peak year, 2019.
Now that the pandemic seems under control, the great queens of the sky are making a comeback. Etihad, Emirates, Lufthansa, Qantas, British Airways and other airlines, including a new start-up, are putting the A380 back to work.
“The pandemic years are behind us, and borders are open as normal,” says IATA Director General Willie Walsh. “Despite economic uncertainties, people are flying to reconnect, explore, and do business.”
The airline industry would prefer the new generation of long-range narrowbody aircraft. Not only are they capable of economical 4,000-mile point-to-point flights, with just 180 to 200 seats, they’re easier to fill with paying passengers than a 500-seat A380.
But aircraft like the Airbus A321XLR are backordered, so airlines are painstakingly pulling the A380 out of storage to meet passenger demand. It also helps that jet fuel costs have dropped more than 20% since last year.
As Etihad’s CEO Antonoaldo Neves noted when the first Etihad A380 returned to flight in July, (485 passengers got cupcakes), “With a surge in demand for travel over the summer, the return of our much-loved A380 comes at the perfect time.” A second Etihad A380 just began operating on the London to Abu Dhabi route, with two more set to join the party.
So far, the A380 flights are exclusively between Abu Dhabi and London, but features the service Etihad is known for. The planes have over 330 economy seats, 68 extra-space seats with four inches of extra legroom, and on the upper deck 70 business ‘studios’ with their own lounge. Flyers can also pay for a First Apartment with seating that turns into an 80” bed and has shower access, or upgrade to The Residence, a three-bedroom suite for two guests.
Speaking of First Class, the CEO of British Airways CEO has confirmed that new First and Business Class cabins will be installed on the airline’s Airbus A380 aircraft. Although BA’s A380s have been back at work since November 2021, many industry observers have commented on the dated cabins in the otherwise beloved aircraft.
Emirates Airways, the largest and arguably most successful A380 operator, is returning many of its superjumbo aircraft to life. Emirates has 116 A380 aircraft that flies to some 50 destinations. Thousands of people from five continents jam into its Dubai hub daily.
The airline is focusing on its new Premium Economy product, a smart business choice with the A380’s large cabin and often extremely long (12 hours plus) flights. Emirates has installed 54 Premium Economy seats in 20 of its A380s so far, with a total of 67 to be so outfitted. In its first full year, Emirates says that over 160,000 customers have traded up to experience the seating, the cabin and the service, which included desserts garnished with edible gold leaf.
“Flying on the A380 is always a treat,” as Simple Flying put it, describing flying business class on an Emirates flight from Dubai to Mauritius.
While the giant aircraft has proved something of a commercial failure (no American airlines ended up adopting it, and a freight version that could have extended its life was never built) it remains a passenger favorite for its size and comfort.
Even the long-nonexistent Airbus A380 aircraft marketplace is showing signs of life. A new A380-based airline, Global Airlines, is set for launch in 2024. The airlines announced a partnership with American Express to help capture its target audience of business travelers. Only AMEX card holders will have the exclusive right to book seats on its first transatlantic flight, set for 2024.
The start-up says a fleet of four A380s will operate between London Gatwick (LGW) and New York JFK, with service to be added to Los Angeles. Although questions have been raised about Global’s business model, (CEO and founder James Asquith described it as “the second coming” of the A380) the airline acquired the first plane in May 2023.
This was apparently only the second A380 ever acquired on the second-hand market. Global says it is refurbishing the aircraft for modern economy, business and first-class seating, so get that AMEX card ready.
Even scrapped A380s are returning to life. Emirates retired its first A380 in March of 2020, after 12 years and more than 6,000 flights. Keep that credit card handy, as the company is recycling the plane into furniture and memorabilia for the many A380 fans out there.