It was less than 20 years ago that Airbus officially launched the monstrous A380 project. The first true double-decker passenger aircraft from nose to tail, the A380 was built to hold more passengers than any other airliner — up to 800+ in a single class configuration that was never realized. The airplane was an expensive bet that the future of travel required big capacity aircraft to fly the biggest routes. That bet was a failure.
The A380 was an ugly duckling, and not just because of its oddly-sloped, dolphin-like forehead and stubby body that just screamed for a lengthened version. The market for such ultra-large aircraft simply didn’t exist in the way Airbus believed it did. Only 22 airlines ever ordered the airplane with only 14 actually taking delivery from Airbus. Now that the program is officially being wound down, we know that the final order count stands at 251 with only 9 still to be delivered. Emirates is said to be trying to wiggle out of its final 5, so it’s entirely possible there won’t even be 250 of the aircraft built.
So why didn’t this airplane work? Well, it was just not well-suited for… anything. There was a lot of dead weight on the airplane thanks to its design as well as the fact that it was built to extend to a larger version. All of the unusable space in the forward cabin of the upper deck as well as the inability to squeeze one extra coach seat into the lower deck rows meant capacity could never get high enough to reach the aircraft’s unit cost potential. It’s this extra weight that made the aircraft a useless freighter considering the steep price of acquisition. That’s why neither FedEx nor UPS took delivery of their 10 aircraft orders. The A380F was never built.
Other airlines just didn’t live long enough to acquire the airplane, including Kingfisher, Transaero, and Skymark in Japan which had 6 on order. Half of those Skymark orders were salvaged when ANA agreed to take on 3 aircraft in exchange for being able to take over Skymark. It didn’t necessarily want those airplanes, but it decided to move forward and dedicate them to flying from Tokyo to Honolulu. Now it must want them even less. It still hasn’t taken the final A380 delivery, and in fact, it just pushed that back to later this year.
Some airlines simply made a mistake ordering the airplane in the first place, giving Airbus false hope. Did Air Austral really need 800 seats to fly people between Paris and Réunion? No, and it never took delivery of its two aircraft on order. Same goes for Hong Kong Airlines and its absurdly aggressive idea to order 10 of the aircraft. The fact that Hong Kong Airlines even still exists is a minor miracle in itself.
Yet the most concerning early cancellation came from an airline that should have had good use for the A380, Virgin Atlantic. With its home base at big and congested Heathrow Airport in London, Virgin Atlantic should have been an ideal candidate. The airline could have used its precious slots to fly more passengers, but ultimately, it just didn’t see the value. It canceled its order for 6.
Across the airfield, British Airways did take 12 of the aircraft and was flying them on routes from London throughout the old British Empire to Boston, Chicago, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and Vancouver. Those had all been grounded since the dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it appears that some are coming back online. At this point, no definitive plans have been made to reduce the fleet.
The same can’t be said over on the continent. Air France had taken delivery of 10, probably because it’s an unwritten requirement that a French airline take delivery of every aircraft type made by Airbus. (Remember, Air France still flies A318s….) It had already retired one before the pandemic hit, and now it has announced they will all be retired permanently.
The only other factory-fresh European operator is Lufthansa with 14 aircraft. Lufthansa has never met a widebody it didn’t like, but it has said it will permanently retire half its A380 fleet with the remainder isolated in the Munich hub. There is one other operator in Europe. That’s Hi Fly, a charter airline which picked up a used A380 for cheap and is inconsequential in this discussion.
The A380 had somewhat better luck in Asia. After Korean Air ordered 10, Asiana had to follow with an order for 6 of its own. Korean has scheduled the fleet primarily from Incheon to Bangkok, Los Angeles, New York/JFK, Paris/CDG, and Sydney while Asiana has centered on Bangkok, Frankfurt, Los Angeles, and Taipei. All remain grounded except for one Asiana aircraft which is being used to keep pilots current.
In China, only China Southern bought the airplane. It has 5 on property which mostly fly to Beijing, Los Angeles, and Sydney. China Southern is the only airline to have kept flying the A380 throughout the pandemic, though it’s hard to understand how the airplane makes much sense for the airline.
In Southeast Asia there’s a large concentration of operators with Singapore being the best example. Though Singapore ordered 24 of the airplanes, it opted to retire 5 of them when it received its most recent deliveries. It decided it just didn’t need them all and has had more success flying A350s around. How many of the 19 current airplanes return is currently unclear.
It’s hard to imagine that the other two operators in Southeast Asia — Thai and Malaysia — want their airplanes. Malaysia made that clear when it unsuccessfully tried to sell its fleet. Now it’s trying to make a business out of running travelers on religious pilgrimmages that can benefit from high capacity airplanes. Thai, which like Lufthansa has never met a widebody it doesn’t like, has parked all of its airplanes during the pandemic as it goes into a reorganization. It only schedules the A380 from Bangkok to Frankfurt, London/Heathrow, Paris/CDG, and Tokyo/Narita. In bankruptcy, it would be surprising to see Thai opt to keep those airplanes.
Down under, we find Qantas as one of the big early supporters of the airplane. The A380 was chosen over the 777 and Qantas must regret that now. Its fleet of 12 is largely confined to flying from both Melbourne and Sydney to Los Angeles and Singapore (and on to London). It also flies from Sydney to Dallas/Fort Worth. Qantas had planned to grow to a fleet of 20, but it won’t take the last 8 and is instead seeing better opportunity with the smaller 787. Qantas has just paused refits to a higher interior standard after only completing half the fleet. It remains to be seen if those six will end up returning to service.
That brings us to the Middle East, the only place where the aircraft has truly thrived. In a “me too” kind of order, we have Etihad (which is not expecting to retire the fleet) and Qatar (which was already going to retire in 2024 and now may move that up) each operating 10 aircraft to London/Heathrow, Paris/CDG, and Sydney. Etihad also flies to New York/JFK and Seoul/Incheon while Qatar goes to Frankfurt, Melbourne, and Perth. But these are nothing compared to Emirates.
Emirates has been the only true champion of this airplane with an incredible 115 in the fleet. When Emirates became the launch customer, it staked its entire business model on making Dubai the hub to end all hubs. It would be all about throughput, running as many passengers in and out as possible. This worked for some time, but then things started to get tight. There was only so much growth to be had, and Emirates began scaling back its plans.
After incrementally increasing its orders over the years, Emirates was the only chance the A380 had to continue on. There was talk of the A380plus with enhancements to improve fuel burn and increase capacity, but ultimately, Emirates wasn’t impressed. It canceled its final 39 A380 orders in February of 2019 and opted for A350s and A330neos instead.
Today, most of the Emirates A380 fleet is parked, but it will return to service. There are still eight A380s on order for Emirates, and the airline will take three of them to replace three that are retiring. As mentioned earlier, however, recent reports suggest it is trying to get out of the final five. That would leave the airline capped at 115 before it starts retiring them toward the back half of the decade.
If you’ve flown the A380, you know it is a passenger-friendly aircraft. The giant wings keep the engine noise far from the cabin, and it provides a stable ride. But that isn’t enough to offset the fact that it’s just not an aircraft that fits into airline plans commercially. It was already in the twilight of its career, but now, the dramatic reduction in demand due to the pandemic has pushed it closer to the grave.