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Airbus A380 superjumbo makes a comeback as travel increases

Andreas Spaeth
July 7, 2022

The world’s biggest airliner, the Airbus A380, had been pronounced dead, almost on arrival. But it's flying high again as travel roars back. German flag carrier Lufthansa is among those bringing their superjumbos back.

Airbus A380
The Airbus A380 is about to start over as air travel activities pick up markedlyImage: Andreas Spaeth/DW

"Never say never" would be appropriate way 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 demand and the delivery delays plaguing Boeing, the superjumbo returns and in much larger numbers than 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 week.

Back from the brink

In a spectacular U-turn last week, German airline Lufthansa confirmed it too was bringing back some A380s for the 2023 summer season, a sign that a resurgence of the A380, unthinkable only months ago, was gaining traction.

Passengers love the A380. But almost all of its operators have struggled to fly the giant aircraft economically, mostly due to its four engines, which consume astronomical levels of fuel as well as the many seats that need to be filled. The aircraft, of which Airbus had hoped to build at least a thousand, was a commercial flop.

The carrier Emirates out of Dubai remains the A380's strongest backer and biggest customer by far. Emirates has 123 A380s, almost half of the entire amoount ever produced.

The production of A380 ended last year, with Emirates receiving the last-ever A380 built at the Airbus factory in Hamburg, in December 2021. The era of the four-engine wide-body jet seemed to be over as US rival Boeing had already indicated it would end production of the legendary Boeing 747 in 2022 after over 50 years.

Decommissiioned A380 in Spain
Decommissioned A380s are suddenly needed and will be made flight-worthy againImage: Andreas Spaeth/DW

Air France phased out its 10 Airbus A380s permanently even before the pandemic hit, some already having been dismantled. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought aviation almost to a standstill in spring of 2020, the end of most remaining A380s appeared unavoidable, with the exception of Emirates' fleet as the airline had already announced it would fly its double-deckers, complete 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 retirement. As Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr stressed in August 2021, "the A380 is obviously not coming back."

In April 2022, he reiterated that 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's A380s 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 to Lourdes in France, a major Catholic pilgrimage site. At the Tarbes-Lourdes airport, are several dozen of the jets, all in long-term storage, sitting against the picturesque backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees. Many of them came here brand new from the Airbus factory in nearby Toulouse, having never carried a passenger.

From behind the thin wire fence it's possible to observe these dormant giants. Windows and engines are covered with silver foil, landing gear carefully wrapped, all openings in the fuselage closed up. This is called "deep storage" in aviation parlance.

"It would take nine months to get our A380s up and running again," Lufthansa's Spohr told DW.

Nonetheless, four to five of the eight remaining A380s at Lufthansa will be made airworthy again and will operate scheduled flights.

"I had to soften my standpoint about the final end of the A380 a little bit," Spohr conceded in late June.

Parked Airbus A380
It'll take some time until the parked jumbojets can take to the air againImage: Andreas Spaeth/DW

Boeing troubles prompted revival

Soaring passenger demand, already above pre-pandemic levels in some areas, is a big reason behind the U-turn on the A380. But it also has to do with problems at US manufacturer Boeing.

Lufthansa was among the first 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 start operating its returning A380s from Munich in Spring 2023, said Spohr, adding that the number could rise if demand stayed strong.

Not enough A380 pilots

The main reason to base the superjumbos in Bavaria rather than at 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 crew are due to do the six-week course that also enables them to fly the A380.

Edited by: Ashutosh Pandey