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Gulf’s beloved Airbus A380 makes its return to the skies

Aircraft, Airliner, Airplane Emirates
Emirates, which was the first airline to order A380s, is currently refurbishing 67 of the aircraft to meet demand
  • Post-pandemic surge in demand for travel
  • Shortage of more fuel-efficient aircraft
  • Long-term fan Emirates leads the revival

The world’s biggest passenger jet, the double-decker Airbus A380, is back in favour after high operating costs forced many airlines to curtail or cancel its use.

The post-pandemic surge in international travel and a shortage of large, fuel-efficient aircraft have combined to reignite demand for the thirsty superjumbo, at least for now.

And nowhere are there more A380s than in the Arabian Gulf.

Of the 251 A380s built by Airbus to date, 123, or just under half, went to Emirates, the largest operator of the type, while Qatar Airways and the UAE’s national carrier, Etihad, each took 10. 

Emirates placed the industry’s first orders for the A380, then called the A3XX, in 2008, and even urged Airbus to build a bigger version. 

Alleviating congestion

The primary purpose of A380s, which typically seat more than 500 passengers, was to serve the world’s most congested airports more productively by increasing the number of travellers carried without increasing flights.

But poor economics worked against the A380 even before the pandemic, with many being grounded because of insufficient demand, while orders were cancelled or reduced. 

No cut was more devastating to Airbus than Emirates’ decision in February 2019 to slash its outstanding commitment from 53 to 14. That, and a lack of other interest in the A380, forced Airbus to cancel production of its biggest, most head-turning jet that year because it had “no substantial backlog”. 

So it is richly ironic now that pandemic-caused disruption to new aircraft production is driving the reactivation of A380s, to help compensate for delayed deliveries of their replacements.

Where are the A380s?

CH-Aviation, a global air data company specialising in airline fleets, says 147 A380s are active worldwide, with 15 more in maintenance and 65 “stored” (aviation parlance for “grounded until further notice”). Another 14 have been broken up for scrap. 

Emirates has 91 active A380s, 62 percent of the global total, plus eight in maintenance and 20 stored, according to CH-Aviation.

Two more have been removed from the carrier’s air operator certificate and another two scrapped, including its very first A380, slivers of which are now being recycled as key tags stamped with details of the first plane.

The CH-Aviation database shows Qatar Airways operating eight A380s and storing two, while Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways is flying three of its 10 A380s, although it plans to reactivate one more.

Qatar took what it called a “reluctant decision” to reintroduce A380s in late 2021 because of the grounding that year of 15 of its smaller A350s over fuselage concerns. 

Etihad had cancelled A380 operations the same year, saying there was no certainty they would return. But in December 2022 the airline announced it would reactivate four of the planes after a surge in demand. 

Face, Happy, Head Qatar Airways is currently operating eight A380s and storing two Qatar cabin crew woman femaleQatar Airways
Qatar Airways is currently operating eight A380s and storing two
Long-term fan

Although Emirates, the world’s biggest airline, shrank its 2019 order for the A380, it continues to be a fan. A380s have for many years supported its business model of connecting waves of international travellers via its globally central, 24/7 mega-hub at Dubai International Airport. 

When its final A380 was delivered in late 2021, Emirates’ president and chief executive, Tim Clark, declared: “The A380 will remain Emirates’ flagship product for the coming years and a vital pillar of our network plans.” 

As well as reactivating A380s on pre-Covid routes, Emirates has since increased their use, including deploying them for the first time to markets such as Bali.

Reinforcing its commitment to the type, Emirates is also refurbishing the first and business-class cabins of 67 A380s and installing a fourth class, premium economy, as part of a multibillion-dollar fleet refresh. 

What remains to be seen is whether Emirates extends the tenure of some or all of its remaining 119 A380s, while awaiting deliveries of 200 wide-body twin-jets. When asked by AGBI, the airline declined to comment on its A380 strategy.

Linus Bauer, managing director of the Dubai-based Bauer Aviation Advisory, said: “Emirates is unique in its heavy reliance on the A380. 

“If the A380 continues to be a profitable asset for Emirates, it makes sense to keep them in the air longer.”

Aircraft, Airliner, Airplane Slivers of Emirates' scrapped first A380 can be bought as key tags from aviationtag.comInstagram/Aviationtag/Emirates
Slivers of Emirates’ scrapped first ever A380 can be bought as key tags from aviationtag.com
A size problem?

However, Bauer said, while the A380 can be cost-effective when full, its sheer size means it can be a liability when demand drops. 

“The evolving nature of global aviation, with a push towards sustainability, changing passenger demands and advancements in aircraft technology, means the airline will need to continuously evaluate the A380’s place in its fleet,” Bauer said.

CH-Aviation data shows that 136 A380s ordered by airlines were never built, including the 39 cancelled by Emirates, which opted instead for 70 Airbus twin-jets.

Most airlines that pulled back from A380s found them too big to be consistently viable, with insufficient belly space for cargo once the luggage from their two passenger decks was loaded, analysts say.

A380s also have four engines in an increasingly two-engine world, making them far less efficient than the new generation of big twin-jets such as the Airbus A350, Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and Boeing 777X.

In addition, although A380s can fly very long routes, some airlines found they were only economical over shorter distances, with a sweet spot of around six to seven hours.

Unexpected reprieve

But the global wind-down of aerospace manufacturing during and beyond the pandemic has led to long, even multi-year, delays in construction and deliveries of new, more efficient aircraft, as supply chains struggle to regroup.

That has given the A380 an unexpected reprieve from carriers including Qatar and Germany’s Lufthansa, both of which have said they are committed to exiting the type, but are also desperate for interim capacity.

There could, therefore, be an opportunity for Emirates to accelerate medium-term recovery by inexpensively acquiring secondhand A380s offloaded by others.

Bauer said: “With many airlines retiring or reducing their A380 fleets, there’s a potential market for secondhand A380s.

“If Emirates sees value, they might capitalise on this, especially if the price is right.”

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