A380’s seats pulled out for Covid-19 missions

CNN  — 

It looks like the ultimate in Covid-era luxury: a huge passenger jet with economy seats removed and acres of space to stretch out your legs.

While this temporary reconfiguration of an Airbus A380 is related to coronavirus, it’s not, however, about social distancing.

Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly has removed most of the seats from its sole A380 in order to make way for more cargo, making it the world’s first A380 to be converted for freight.

As the A380 is the world’s largest passenger jet, that’s a lot of space that’s been freed up. The aircraft has 300 square meters of volume capacity and can hold close to 60 tons of cargo, to be precise. That’s even more weight than the Beluga XL, Airbus’s gigantic, whale-resembling freighter airplane, can transport.

Hi Fly tells CNN that it’s using its newly converted A380 to transport medical and protective equipment to aid the fight against Covid-19, with its most recent destinations being Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, Montreal in Canada, and Tianjin and Wuhan in China.

This aviation first is perhaps a last hurrah for the A380, as Airbus announced last year that it would stop deliveries of the superjumbo in 2021.

The Covid pandemic also appeared to be hastening its demise, with airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas and Air France grounding their remaining A380s as the demand for air travel plummeted.

Popular with air travelers but expensive to operate, the gigantic double-decker craft with its 853-passenger maximum capacity was simply “too big for current needs,” John Grant of AG Aviation Consultants told CNN Travel in March.

Hi Fly took over its Airbus A380-800 from Singapore Airlines, retaining its original interior and 471-seat configuration.

With the economy seats removed (business and first-class remain), Hi Fly can carry freight across all three levels of the aircraft.

The international transport of critical medical goods has been crucial to supporting first responders around the world.

“Air cargo solutions have never been more important than they are now to global health services. Currently, our international teams dispatch multiple flights daily to ensure that vital medical supplies protect those in need,” Tatyana Arslanova, executive operating officer for Moscow-based Air Bridge Cargo, told CNN Travel in May.

The Boeing 747-8F, with its climate-controlled cargo hold, has been a craft of choice during the crisis.

Unlike the 747, however, there’s never been a freighter version of the A380, although Airbus did at one time have plans for one.

That freighter project was canceled. The A380 suffered from disappointing initial sales and the superjumbo’s design – with its emphasis on volume – meant that it made more economic sense to load up with relatively light passengers, rather than weighty cargo.

However, these unprecedented times have meant that airlines have been forced to be flexible and to consider how best to utilize the craft in their fleet.

Perhaps Hi Fly’s A380 won’t be the first superjumbo to get a second chance at the high life.

Howard Slutsken contributed to this report.