The world’s biggest airliner Airbus A380 had been pronounced dead, but suddenly it’s soaring again as travel roars back. German flag carrier Lufthansa is among those bringing their superjumbos back.
“Those declared dead fly longer” or “Never say never” would be appropriate titles to describe such an extraordinary comeback.
The Airbus A380, the world’s biggest airliner with over 600 seats on board (in one specific Emirates airline configuration) had been written off by many observers and retired by numerous airlines at the height of the pandemic. But now, as airlines seek ways to cope with the sudden massive increase in travel demand and delivery delays plaguing Boeing, the superjumbo returns in much larger numbers than ever expected.
In the last week of June, a total of 129 A380s were taking to the skies again globally, operated by seven airlines, according to tracking portal flightradar24. That’s more than half of the 251 long-haul aircraft ever delivered with more being brought back into service every passing week.
A380: Back from the brink
In a spectacular U-turn last week, German airline Lufthansa confirmed it was bringing back some A380s from the 2023 summer season, a sign that a resurgence of the A380, unthinkable only months ago, was gaining traction.
Emirates from Dubai remains the aircraft’s strongest backer, the biggest customer by far. The airline has 123 A380s, almost half of the entire production.
The production of A380 ended last year, with Emirates receiving the last-ever A380 built in December 2021 at the Airbus factory in Hamburg. The era of the four-engine wide-body jets seemed to be finally over as US rival Boeing had already indicated to end production of the legendary Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet in 2022 after over 50 years.
Air France had phased out its 10 Airbus A380s permanently even before the pandemic hit, some already having been dismantled in the meantime. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought aviation almost to a standstillin spring of 2020, the end of most remaining A380s appeared unavoidable with the exception of Emirates’ fleet as the airline had already announced to fly its double-deckers equipped with showers and an on-board lounge until the mid-2030s.
Lufthansa embraces A380 again
Lufthansa, which had a total of 14 A380s in its fleet, was among the airlines that pulled the plug on the superjumbo. It sent its entire fleet into what seemed like permanent retirement. Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr stressed in August 2021: “The A380 is obviously not coming back.” In April 2022, he reiterated to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine: “This is over once and for all. The A380 is too uneconomical compared with the newest twin-engine long-haul jets. It’s not coming back at Lufthansa.”
Lufthansa still has 14 A380s, which are currently parked in Spain and France. Six of these aircraft have already been sold, eight A380s remain part of the Lufthansa fleet for the time being.
Anyone who wants to see Lufthansa’s superjumbos today should go, for example, to Lourdes in France, a major Catholic pilgrimage site. At Tarbes-Lourdes airport, with the picturesque backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees, are several dozens of the jet in long-term storage – many of them came here brand-new from the Airbus factory in nearby Toulouse, having never carried a passenger.
From the thin wire fence it’s possible to basically get up close and personal with the dormant giants: Windows and engines are covered with silver foil, landing gears carefully wrapped, all openings in the mighty fuselage thoroughly shut. This slumber is called “deep storage” in aviation parlance.
“It would take nine months to get our A380s up and running again,” Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr told DW.
Four to five of the eight remaining A380s with Lufthansa’s crane logo on their tails are going to be made airworthy again to operate scheduled flights.
“I had to soften my standpoint about the final end of the A380 a little bit,” Spohr said in late June.
Boeing troubles prompt Airbus A380 revival
While the soaring passenger demand, which in some places is already above pre-pandemic levels, is a big reason behind the U-turn, it’s more to do with problems at Boeing.
Lufthansa was among the launch customers of the biggest long-haul aircraft currently in production, the Boeing 777-9, which the German airline wants to operate with 400 seats. However, the delivery of the aircraft has been delayed by about five years to 2025.
“The delivery delays for the Boeing 777-9 are a big burden on our flight operations,” Spohr said. So, as a stopgap measure, Lufthansa has decided to reintroduce the A380.
Lufthansa would operate its 4-5 returning A380s from Munich in spring 2023, said Spohr, adding that the number could rise if demand continued to remain strong.
Not enough A380 pilots
The main reason to base the superjumbos in Bavaria rather than Lufthansa’s Frankfurt hub is the lack of pilots.
“We have only kept 14 A380 pilots ready to fly, who could be deployed straight away, so if we bring the A380 back into service, we would need to qualify some more A350 pilots,” explained Spohr.
Lufthansa’s A350 fleet is also based in Munich, where some of its cockpit crews are due to receive six-week courses to enable them to also fly the A380.