superjumbo a380 graveyard

Superjumbo A380: There’s Life in the Old Dog Yet Again

When air traffic collapsed with the Corona crisis, the giant Airbus A380s landed almost exclusively in aircraft graveyards. Now satellite images show that more and more airlines are bringing the world’s largest passenger aircraft back into service.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by “Rüdiger Kiani-Kreß and Thomas Stölzel“. Access the original article here.

At the beginning of December, Frankfurt Airport offered aviation fans a special sight. For the first time in more than two years, a Deutsche Lufthansa Airbus A380 landed at the airport. Onlookers and Lufthansa employees welcomed the captains and their 73-meter-long giant jumbo with a small celebration.

In 2020, the company had mothballed the jet with the Dusseldorf livery in an aircraft parking lot in Teruel, Spain, next to several A380s of its competitor Etihad from Abu Dhabi. A total of around 20 giant jumbos were still parked there. After a thorough inspection, the Lufthansa aircraft is now scheduled to return to scheduled service in Munich in March, carrying up to 555 guests per flight to destinations all over the world.

The “Mike Kilo” – as pilots call the aircraft – is not to be the last. “Four to five more A380s will follow by next year,” Lufthansa says. In the fall of 2021, Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr had still declared, “The A380 is not coming back, of course.”

  • Teruel Airport 2019
  • Teruel Airport 2021
  • Teruel Airport 2022
  • Teruel Airport 20 Airbus

Images: LiveEO/Airbus, LiveEO/Pleiades

Like Europe’s largest airline, other carriers are currently bringing their former flagship back into service, according to recent satellite imagery from LiveEO. Statistics from the Swiss data service provider CH-Aviation support the observation. With the “Düsseldorf”, more than half of the total of 251 delivered aircraft are now active again. In addition, the Gulf carrier Etihad has just decided to bring back its A380s from 2023.

This means that ten of the 15 operators to date have now reactivated the model following the aviation crisis triggered by Corona. The largest is Emirates from Dubai. It is using 84 of the once 123 examples in scheduled service again. British Airways even has all twelve A380s back in the air. China Southern still has three active models. Other airlines, such as Japan’s All Nippon, want to follow suit. Emirates and Singapore Airlines are even renewing the cabin of their flagship.

Half Are Flying Again

What the Airlines are doing with their A380 Aircraft

A380 Aircraft
Source: Flightradar24, CH-Aviation, as of; 30.11.2022 Graphic: Konstantin Megas

But aviation experts are still skeptical about the long-term future of the A380. That’s because not all airlines are bringing it back. “For almost all operators who do, the aircraft is in one way or another only a stopgap for a limited time,” says Hamburg-based industry expert Heinrich Großbongardt. After that, the aircraft are likely to return to where they have been: To aircraft graveyards such as Teruel, Victorville in California or Alice Springs in Australia – or straight to Tarbes Airport in southern France, where the first Airbus A380s have already been cannibalized and scrapped since 2019.

These remote landing sites have developed amazingly in recent years, as satellite images show. The officially named Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage (APAS) site in Alice Springs, for example, is located pretty much in the center of Australia. Before the Corona era, APAS had room for only two dozen aircraft.

But in wise foresight, its boss Tom Vincent had already begun an expansion before the pandemic, and can now distribute up to 150 planes in the red dust. The A380s and other wide-body jets from Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific are the main aircraft here. In the structurally weak outback, each of these jets provides at least half a dozen jobs.

  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 2020
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 4 Airbus 2020
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 6 A380 Airbus 2020
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 7 A380 Airbus 2020
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 7 A380 Airbus
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 7 A380 Airbus 2021
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 8 A380 Airbus 2021
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 5 A380 Airbus 2021
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 3 A380 Airbus 2022
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage 2 A380 Airbus 2022
  • Asia Pacific Aircraft 2 A380 Airbus 2022

Images: LiveEO/Pleiades, LiveEO/GoogleEarth/Maxar.

The sites don’t just tempt with cheap parking fees. The climate is ideal for waiting for an aircraft to return to scheduled service or be dismantled. “Because the air is warm and, above all, dry, the aircraft hardly suffer from corrosion,” says Großbongardt. Emirates and Qatar Airways do park many of their A380s in Dubai and Doha. But these are exceptions. Here, the air is also dry. But the sand can get into the sensitive parts of the aircraft. The airlines have to laboriously remove it before restarting operations.

That’s why the major Persian Gulf airlines only parked aircraft here that they intend to bring back soon. The fact that Etihad parks its A380s in Teruel, Spain, instead of Abu Dhabi, for example, indicates that the airline initially did not see much of a future for its ten aircraft. Even if it is now making a U-turn and wants to reactivate four of them.

The turnaround in lines is due in part to the upswing in the airline industry. With the end of the Corona restrictions since March, air traffic has really exploded and is emptying the parking spaces. Nowhere is this more evident than at Dubai World Central (DWC) Airport.

Dubai’s new airport had plenty of space before the crisis. Emirates preferred to use the old airport because, despite all its narrowness, it is easier for customers to reach. So there was plenty of room when the airline had to store its fleet in spring 2020, especially the A380s, each of which requires a good 6,000 square meters of parking space.

At the DWC, satellite imagery now shows an astonishing rebirth. Although air traffic picked up at the beginning of 2021, the number of parked A380s was still growing at Dubai World Central. The simple explanation: Until then, Emirates had parked parts of its superjumbo fleet far from home. Now it was bringing them home to have them quickly on hand for the expected restart. It is true that the new variants of the corona virus then slowed down the recovery, so that just over a year ago, around 70 A380s were still parked here. But in the meantime, only about two dozen are still on the ground in the southwest of Dubai.

  • Dubai-World Central International Airport 2019
  • Dubai-World Central International Airport 2020
  • Dubai-World Central International Airport 2021
  • Dubai Airport 70 Emirates Airbus A380
  • Dubai-World Central International Dubai Airport 2022

Images: LiveEO/Spot, LiveEO/GoogleEarth/Maxar

With its renewed return, the largest passenger jet of all time escapes its oft-heralded end for the second time. In 2005, before its maiden flight, it was already threatened with extinction. Back then, a botched production plan caused a delay of several years in construction. This caused development costs to rise from a planned ten billion euros to an estimated 20 billion. At the same time, fewer airlines than hoped for ordered the planes, which meant that each plane had to be built at a loss of more than 100 million euros. This pushed Airbus to its limits – Germany and France had to step in as shareholders and make the construction of the flagship jet possible.

But the A380 remained a multi-billion-dollar grave, even though global air traffic almost doubled between 2007 and 2019. There were only a few routes where the aircraft could be filled profitably. High operating costs were the main reason for this. Because Airbus later wanted to offer the jet in a long-wing version without much effort, the wings and suspension, for example, and the tail were too large. The result: overweight and high fuel consumption. Fuel consumption is around 20,000 liters per flight hour, or around four liters per passenger per 100 kilometers when fully occupied. This is up to 40 percent more than modern long-haul aircraft such as the Airbus A350 consume. What’s more, the engines are technically obsolete: Because they are comparatively weak, the A380 needs four of them. That drives up maintenance costs.

So the airlines preferred to buy different and smaller aircraft. “With two Boeing 787 Dreamliners, we fly the same number of passengers more cheaply and more profitably than with an A380,” said the head of Australia’s Qantas, Alan Joyce, comparing his two long-haul jets. Airbus ended up getting rid of only 251 of them, instead of the good 1,000 it had hoped for. And because the program never even earned its actual construction costs, then-CEO Tom Enders discontinued it in the middle of the 2019 boom year.

That is why the Corona crisis hit the A380 harder than other models. At the low point of the slump, only a good 20 of the 251 aircraft were still flying. Nowhere is this more evident than in Doha. It is true that the state-owned airline Qatar Airways retained a large number of its destinations during the crisis, apparently accepting high losses in the process. But it parked all ten A380s at its home airport.

  • Old Doha Airport 10 Airbus A380s 2021
  • Old Doha Airport 2 Airbus A380s 2022

Images: LiveEO/GoogleEarth/Maxar

As heard in the environment of the company, this had two other reasons besides the high costs. At the time, cargo transportation was an important source of revenue. But because the cargo holds are very small due to the large wing hangers, the A380 can carry relatively few pallets and containers compared to the Boeing 777. There was also a psychological effect. Because the flights were barely booked, there were plenty of reports and photos of empty rows of seats. “And these would have looked even more spooky on the big A380 and probably made the commitment to sustainability look even more implausible,” surmises a person familiar with the company.As heard in the environment of the company, this had two other reasons besides the high costs. At the time, cargo transportation was an important source of revenue. But because the cargo holds are very small due to the large wing hangers, the A380 can carry relatively few pallets and containers compared to the Boeing 777. There was also a psychological effect. Because the flights were barely booked, there were plenty of reports and photos of empty rows of seats. “And these would have looked even more spooky on the big A380 and probably made the commitment to sustainability look even more implausible,” surmises a person familiar with the company.

There are now three reasons for the return of the A380. The most important is the shortage of other aircraft. Because air traffic is now at about 80 percent of pre-crisis levels worldwide, airlines need more jets. But they don’t exist. At the start of the crisis, almost all of them took smaller, fuel-hungry aircraft out of service, in addition to the A380. They did so in the belief that they would receive the new long-haul aircraft they had ordered in good time when business picked up again. But nothing came of it, for example because Boeing was unable to deliver its 787 for a long time due to production problems and did not get the new 777X ready. For that reason, Lufthansa now also has to reactivate its A380. “Before we give up routes and landing rights, we’ll use this aircraft, even if it’s not really worth it,” according to company sources.

In addition, Qatar Airways had home-made problems. For example, the airline grounded its Airbus A350s because it considered paint damage to be dangerous. “This meant that, in addition to the delayed 777Xs, so many aircraft were missing that only the A380s remained,” says expert Großbongardt.

  • New Doha Airport Airbus A380 from British Airways 2020
  • New Doha Airport 00 Airbus A380 2022

Images: LiveEO/GoogleEarth/Maxar

Even though it costs up to 20 million euros to bring a stored A380 back to life, it’s apparently worth it for many airlines. The best example of this is also in Doha. Less than two kilometers as the crow flies from Qatar Airways’ parking bays at the city’s old airport is the new Hamad Airport. At the height of the crisis, British Airways parked a few of its A380s there.

In the meantime, they are all back on duty. This solves one of the line’s problems. Because its London Heathrow hub in particular was overloaded in the summer and long lines formed in front of the checkpoints, the authorities restricted the number of takeoffs. As a result, the line would have had to turn away passengers on its core North Atlantic service. But thanks to the large A380s, it can sell significantly more tickets with the same number of flights. True, the British could have activated a few of their idle Boeing 747 jumbo jets at almost the same cost. “But they bring in significantly less revenue with just over 100 seats,” says a leading industry insider.

  • Southern California Logistics Airport 2020
  • Southern California Logistics Airport 2021
  • Southern California Logistics Airport 2022

Images: LiveEO/Pleiades, LiveEO/GoogleEarth/Maxar.

Despite the hardship, another group still uses only some of its A380s. These include mainly Asian lines such as Singapore Airlines and Australia’s Qantas, which had eight of its 12 giant planes parked in Victorville, California. They are all now sending the aircraft back on longer routes with high demand from tourists. At Qantas, this is the kangaroo route from London via Singapore or Bangkok to Australian cities such as Sydney and Perth. In addition, there are almost purely vacation routes, such as from Japan to Hawaii, where All Nippon Airways operates its three A380s in comparatively tight seating.

Operators are even benefiting from the A380’s problems. Because many airlines were able to renegotiate their leases during the Corona period due to an oversupply of aircraft, prices have dropped significantly, according to CH-Aviation data. One that is just over ten years old costs less than $30 million. The former list price: nearly $400 million. Lease rates, at around $300,000 per month, are now often below those of a new Airbus A320neo or Boeing 737Max medium-haul jet.

“And because of the oversupply of old cannibalizable aircraft, spare parts prices have also become much cheaper,” says Großbongardt. Since many passengers find vacations so important after the lockdowns that they pay up to a quarter more for their tickets, the flights pay off more often than expected.

  • Lourdes Airport 2018
  • Lourdes Airport 2021
  • Lourdes Airport 2022

Images: LiveEO/Pleiades

Despite the good omens: At least 50 examples of the A380 are unlikely to return, ending up at places like the Tarbes dismantling airport in southern France. With Air France, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways, three operators have already announced that they have permanently retired their jets despite all the hardships. “This is part of a strategy to improve the economic and environmental performance of our airline,” Air France-KLM CEO Ben Smith lets it be known, pointing out that the A350 replacement “uses 25 percent less fuel and reduces noise pollution by 40 percent.” That’s why the line has already cut four of its once ten – and they won’t be the last. Although Thai Airways and Malaysia Airlines, for example, are still officially offering their six superjumbos for sale, the first Malaysia plane arrived in Tarbes two weeks ago on what will probably be its last flight.

The strongest indication of a rather short second life for the A380 is that, in addition to the number of reactivated aircraft, the number of scrappings is also increasing. China Southern is on the verge of a phase-out, already has two of its five aircraft at Mojave Airport for scrapping and plans to retire its three active ones – at least until the Chinese New Year in January. Lufthansa also expects nine of its 14 aircraft to remain in the jet graveyards of Tarbes and Teruel. This is probably one of the reasons why the latter is now also getting involved in the dismantling of superjumbos.

Get in touch!