Could coronavirus lead to the early demise of the Superjumbo?

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With the slump in air travel caused by coronavirus, and airlines fearful that demand might not return to 2019 levels for at least two to three years, several are looking at whether there’s any longer any need for the giant double-decker Airbus A380 aircraft, dubbed the Superjumbo.

Air France announced this week that it’s permanently grounding its nine A380s, which weren’t due to be retired until 2022.

Emirates, which has a fleet of 115 A380s, was due to take delivery of eight more by next year but it’s been reported that the Dubai-based airline is trying to reduce its order to just three. It was planning to keep flying the Superjumbos until 2030, but it now seems that it’s planning to phase them out earlier.

Etihad Airways in neighbouring Abu Dhabi is also reported to be considering retiring its fleet of A380s unless air travel bounces back fast.

Back in April, German airline Lufthansa said it would retire almost half of its 14 A380s earlier than scheduled.

Australian airline Qantas has temporarily grounded its 12 A380s and while it said it might bring them back into service, depending on travel demand, that’s not looking likely as the airline has halted a multi-million-dollar upgrade of its business class and premium seats and a refresh of its first class cabin with only half the aircraft refurbished.

Even before coronavirus, Airbus was planning to cease production of the mammoth A380 at the end of next year due to lack of orders. Aside from the A380s for Emirates, it’s building just one for Japanese airline ANA.

When it was launched only 13 years ago, there was much talk of how the A380 – which replaced the then 38-year-old Boeing 747 as the world’s biggest aircraft – would transform air travel. With capacity for up to 615 passengers, it was seen as a solution to airport overcrowding and airlines talked about how they would use some of the additional space onboard to install gyms, inflight cinemas and restaurants. In reality, most just crammed in more seats, although Eithad did create a three-room ‘Residence’ on the top deck, which came with a personal butler.

While it is well-liked by passengers due to the increased sense of space the giant interior affords, the A380 hasn’t proved as popular with airlines as much smaller aircraft, such as the 787 Dreamliner, produced by rival Boeing at around the same time.

Airbus has secured only 273 orders for the A380, which compares to more than 1,000 already for its A350.

The main problem with the A380 is fuel burn, which is much higher than on other long-range aircraft due to the fact that it has four engines. The twin-engine A350, for instance, uses 20% to 25% less fuel per passenger.

With travel demand expected to slump, the economies of operating such a large, fuel guzzling aircraft no longer stack up and whilst it’s a shame to see this beautiful big bird slip into early retirement, it could be good news for the environment.

 

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