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Airbus A380, Unkillable Queen Of The Skies, Returns Despite Pandemic

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Some 80,000 people will attend the Dubai Airshow this month, a lively marketplace highlighting the latest in commercial aviation. Many participants will undoubtedly fly in on the world’s largest passenger airliner, the double-decker Airbus A380. The giant aircraft’s improbable comeback from its near-death COVID-19 experience provides a barometer reading of the increasing health of the aviation industry.

When the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic struck in early 2020, commercial aviation was one of the casualties. For the Airbus A380, the decline was particularly sudden.

According to Simple Flying, there were 223 A380s were in operation as of March 1, 2020. (Airbus had built just 250 aircraft when manufacturing ended in 2021.) But by the end of that month, just 27 A380s were still flying. By mid-April, perhaps the worst month for COVID-19 related flight shutdowns (in the U.S. passenger count dropped about 95%) just four were operating.

Only China Southern continued flying its A380s through the pandemic. Most A380s were parked for over than a year. Predictions were that the jumbos they would be replaced by smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft that would be easier to fill with passengers once the pandemic abated.

Of course, many airliners were grounded, not just the A380. Others were converted into freighters, cannibalized for parts, or reduced to scrap. In 2020, a staggering 16,000 planes were parked. And with few passengers due to the pandemic and closed international borders, operating a thirsty 500-seat four-engine aircraft with a crew of a dozen made zero economic sense.

Still, it was sad to see the A380 summarily sent to aircraft boneyards around the world, along with its Boeing 747 jumbo jet counterpart. More than half were parked in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, home to major A380 operators Emirates, Etihad and Qatar airlines. Many A380s have been parked since the United Arab Emirates announced a cessation of inbound and outbound flights on March 24, 2020.

In August 2020, aerospace engineer and former head of fleet procurement for Lufthansa Nico Buchholz predicted that more than 100 of the world’s 230 operational A380s would remain grounded forever. For those who want to fly a jumbo, he said, “I predict that four-engine wide-bodies will fly longest at Lufthansa with the 747-8 and Emirates with the A380. In 2030 you most likely have to take a pick between these two airlines if you want to fly with four engines.”

Indeed, Lufthansa and Air France chose to permanently retire their A380 fleet, a particularly poignant departure as Germany and France are key national partners in Airbus.

The older Boeing 747 fared even worse, as British Airways, Qantas, KLM and Virgin Atlantic cited the pandemic as they unceremoniously drop-kicked the aircraft onto the scrap heap.

Nonetheless, the A380 is slowly returning to action. Emirates, British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore, Qatar, Qantas and China Southern, are among airlines either flying the “queen of the skies” or announcing plans to do so.

Emirates has long been the leader in utilization of the A380. The Dubai-based airline owns nearly half of the world’s Airbus A380s, with 119 in inventory and another two on order.

According to the indispensable Sam Chui, Emirates took more than 30 A380s out of mothballs this summer to fly to 15 cities, including Cairo, Jeddah, Amman, Guangzhou, London Heathrow, Manchester, Frankfurt, Vienna, Paris, Munich, Moscow, New York JFK, Los Angeles, Washington DC and Toronto. The airline has a refreshed Business Class with mattresses available for the seats (!) Flights to Frankfort and Paris now boast rows of premium economy seats.

Singapore will be operating some of its 12 remaining A380s (five were scrapped) on a long and a short flight starting later this month. The long flight is from Singapore to London, part of the airlines’ quarantine-free travel program for vaccinated travelers. The short flight is indeed one of the shortest, yet densest, routes—the 354km to Singapore to neighboring Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

For now, Korean Airlines is flying a somewhat longer 950km weekly flight from Seoul to Beijing, preparing for the globe-spanning travel for which the A380 is known.

Siva Govindasamy of Singapore Airlines’ global public affairs told CNN that the airline knows the A380 holds a special place in the hearts of passengers. “The A380 is a wonderful aircraft. Some people just book the A380 specifically to fly on it.”

British Airways just began operating its 469-seat version of the jumbo giant on short haul European flights from London Heathrow (LHR) to Frankfurt (FRA) and Madrid (MAD). Such flights are meant to re-familiarize pilots and crew with planes parked for a year and a half. BA A380 flights will expand over the next few months to Dubai, Miami, Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth, beginning in March 2022.

Qantas indicates that 5 of its 12 A380 aircraft will return to international routes like Sydney to Los Angeles and Sydney to London via Singapore in 2022. Five will be re-fitted, while two have been retired.

ANA has three of the newest A380s, each with Hawaiian sea turtle paintjobs. ANA is currently using the planes as pop-up restaurants and for ‘flights to nowhere’ in Japan. Operators are looking for the opportunity to renew service to Hawaii.

Last year, the fate of Qatar Airlines A380s seemed questionable after Group CEO Akbar Al Baker said,Looking back, it was the biggest mistake we did, to purchase A380s.” He cited operating costs and environmental impact. Yet Qatar appears to have brought its 10 A380s to fly between Doha and London Heathrow, as well as Doha to Paris, starting in December.

Airlines that permanently dropped the A380 may have helped create a parts pool to keep the survivors flying to 2030 and beyond. Unless a market for used A380s suddenly develops (unlikely) cannibalization is the only answer for retired aircraft.

Enjoy the return of the A380. The graceful beasts may be around longer than anticipated.