Popular with air travelers but expensive to operate at the best of times, the gigantic Airbus A380 passenger plane could be one of the first major airplane casualties of the coronavirus.
Airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas and Air France have been grounding their superjumbos, at a time when a sharp drop in demand for air travel means many planes are flying close to empty.
The world’s largest passenger plane already had its cards marked – it was announced in 2019 that Airbus would stop deliveries of the A380 in 2021 – but the extraordinary circumstances of the Covid-19 outbreak means superjumbo fleets are disappearing from our skies sooner than expected.
And, with numerous airlines said to be teetering on the brink of collapse, no one knows for sure whether they will ever return.
German flag carrier Lufthansa led the charge in early March, making the decision to park its entire fleet of 14 A380s until at least the end of May, reported German aviation news site aero.de.
The mammoth double-decker craft has capacity for 853 passengers, although a typical seating arrangement means it usually carries 525.
Compare that to the 140-170 capacity of the Airbus A320, which last year overtook the Boeing 737 as the world’s best-selling airplane, and it’s clear to see why airlines are favoring the more fuel-efficient choice of a smaller plane.
According to an internal memo seen by aero.de, this month Lufthansa’s A380s had a load factor of just 35%, meaning the planes were going out with an average of just 180 passengers on board.
“Simple answer is that they are too big for current needs,” John Grant of AG Aviation Consultants tells CNN Travel.
“If airlines are going to maintain any schedules they need to match capacity to demand; that means in many cases smaller aircraft types and – as we are seeing – large frequency reductions.
“The A380 doesn’t fit that bill, especially when many airline operators require large proportions of transfer traffic from other countries. With countries being locked down it just does not make commercial sense, despite the cost of fuel currently being so low.”
Lufthansa’s fleet, which previously flew routes from Germany to Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco, as well as other destinations around the world, is currently parked up at its hubs in Frankfurt and Munich.
The German carrier announced March 6 that it plans to reduce its flight program by up to 50% to deal with the financial consequences of the slump in demand.
Globally, airlines could be set to lose as much as $113 billion in sales due to the crisis, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Meanwhile, Sydney-based consultancy CAPA Centre for Aviation warned Monday that, without government assistance, most airlines worldwide will face bankruptcy by the end of May.
“Coordinated government and industry action is needed – now – if catastrophe is to be avoided,” CAPA said in a statement.
Expiry date looming
Australian flag carrier Qantas announced March 10 that it is grounding its eight of its 12 Airbus A380s until mid-September. With two of is A380s undergoing scheduled maintenance, there are just two left flying.
The airline says it’s reducing capacity by almost a quarter for the next six months, and is using smaller planes and reducing frequency of flights to maintain overall connectivity.
South Korea’s biggest airlines, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, are also grounding their A380s.
Air France is grounding its fleet of 10 superjumbos, reported aviation news site FlightGlobal on March 16. Back in 2018, the French carrier was one of the first airlines to announce plans to cut its A380 fleet.
With an expiry date already looming for the A380, there’s no guarantee that those grounded behemoths will ever take to the skies again.
How Airbus brings the parts of the A380 together
World’s biggest fleet of A380s
Aviation news site The Points Guy reported Monday that this fresh batch of grounded craft makes up about a sixth of the A380s currently in service, with about 200 still in the air for superjumbo fans still to enjoy.
With a fleet of 115, Emirates is the biggest customer of the Airbus A380 and has eight of the craft still on order.
However even the craft’s biggest champion might be getting cold feet. The UAE airline is currently in discussions with Airbus to delay handover of those last few superjumbos, Bloomberg reports.
Opportunities may be fewer to fly in an A380, but it’s becoming a lot easier to buy one.
While the last published price list of an A380 was $445 million, the superjumbo’s value has been plummeting for some time, with the Covid-19 effect certain not to improve matters.
Valerie Bershova, valuations analyst at Ascend by Cirium, recently estimated that the market value of an A380 now ranges between $77 million for a 2005-build “half-life” aircraft and $276 million for a new 2019-build aircraft in “full-life” condition.
But 10 years from now, predicts Bershova, the spare-parts value of an A380 could be as little as $35 million.