Air France to ditch half its Airbus A380s: Why no one wants the superjumbo

Air France is ditching half of its Airbus A380s in the latest blow to the future of the world's largest passenger plane.

The airline said it will not renew the leases on five of its 10 "superjumbos", with two to be returned to their owners next year and three more at a later date. Its five other A380s, whose cabins have been criticised by business class passengers, will be renovated – but not until late 2020 at the earliest.

The travails of the A380, which can hold more than 600 passengers in a two-class seating configuration, have become something of an aviation soap opera in recent years. The model was launched to much fanfare in 2005 with many declaring it the future of air travel. But airlines were harder to convince and sales slowly ground to a halt. Just two new orders were received in 2015 and none in either 2016 or 2017. Until January, when Emirates - the A380's biggest customer - threw the superjumbo a lifeline with a fresh order, it looked like the production line might be shut down altogether.

But other airlines remain unmoved. Last year Singapore Airlines returned two 11-year-old A380s to a German leasing company, Dr Peters Group. The German firm then announced in June that the planes would be stripped and sold for parts because it had failed to secure a new operator (British Airways was among those approached).

In 2016 an Irish aircraft leasing company, Amedeo, said it was even considering creating its own airline because it couldn't find anyone to borrow its A380s.

Why does nobody want the A380?

The jet has been widely praised by passengers for offering a smooth and comfortable flying experience, but commentators have called it a "vanity project" and the economics of operating it have proved off-putting for airlines. Simply put, every service needs to run at close to full capacity for carriers to make money.

Airlines are instead opting to buy medium-sized twin-engine planes, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the A320neo, which launched in 2016, and the A350, introduced in 2015. Air France uses the Boeing 777-300ER on many of its key long-haul routes. All these models are far easier to fill and cheaper maintain than the A380.

Such is the popularity of the A320 that the company claims one takes off or lands somewhere in the world every two seconds. Airbus says an A380 takes off or lands somewhere in the world every two minutes.

Its latest version, the A320neo, has received more than 6,000 orders from around 70 airlines, making it the fastest-selling commercial aircraft in history. Boeing's answer to the A320neo, said to be quieter and more fuel efficient, is the 737 MAX, of which Ryanair has ordered 135 (out of total orders of nearly 5,000).

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"The A380 is well regarded by customers flying on it," explained air transport consultant John Strickland. "Generally, however, twin-engine aircraft such as the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 777 reduce the financial risks involved with filling capacity and operating costs."

Which airline owns the most A380s?

Emirates, by a long way. With a fleet of 105, it's one of the few carriers able to get the maximum value out of the four-engine A380, and has made it the core of its long-haul fleet. Other airlines have ordered them in far smaller quantities: British Airways, for example, has 12 of them in its fleet of 276 aircraft.

Airbus had also been hoping Chinese airlines would help revive it. China will be the world's biggest air travel market by 2022, according to the International Air Transport Association. But they too appear to be opting for smaller models, while 2008 saw the launch of Comac, a homegrown manufacturer that China hopes can break the Airbus-Boeing duopoly.

See also: Airline review: Emirates, Airbus A380, economy class

What's the next biggest passenger plane?

Hypothetically, should every single A380, capable of carrying 853 passengers in a single-class economy configuration, be grounded, the Boeing 747-800 would become the largest passenger aircraft in the world, capable of carrying 700 passengers in a single class.

But isn't the 747 falling from favour?

The 747 will remain in the sky for some time to come – a remarkable 1547 have been built and delivered since 1966 - including five this year, all bound for logistics behemoth UPS - and they remain an important part of countless airline fleets, including that of British Airways, which owns 36 jumbo jets (more than any other carrier bar Atlas Air), and Virgin Atlantic, which has eight. A little over 500 are still in service and the oldest "active" 747, according to the website Airfleets.net, made its maiden flight on July 13, 1969 (exactly one week before man first set foot on the moon) and belongs to Iran's Caspian Airlines.

But they are slowly being phased out. Qantas will retire its last 747 by 2021. BA has retired five in the last 12 months and said the model will be gone from its hangars by 2024. Last year United waved goodbye to its final 747, with a farewell flight from San Francisco to Honolulu (recreating the route of its first 747 service in 1970), as did its US rival Delta. KLM has binned two in 2018 . Before long this iconic aircraft, the world's biggest passenger plane for 37 years, will be the preserve of the planet's smaller airlines and cargo companies.

See also: Not dead yet: There is one route where 747 jumbo jets are still popular

At a glance | More iconic aircraft disappearing from the skies

Fokker 100/70

The largest aircraft built by Dutch manufacturer Fokker before it declared bankruptcy in 1996, the Fokker 100 and its smaller sibling, the Fokker 70, are rapidly disappearing from the skies. KLM, the world's oldest airline and for decades its biggest customer, retired its final Fokker in October 2017, and only around a dozen of either model are still flying in Europe (Helvetic Airways, based in Switzerland, is the continent's biggest Fokker operator, with five). Virgin Australia Regional Airlines still uses the Fokker 100 (it has 14), but is planning to replace them with ATRs. Other airlines still flying the Dutch aircraft include Iran Air (3), Papua New Guinea's Air Niugini (7), and Air Panama (5).

Boeing 727

The trijet was certainly popular for a time. The Hawker Siddeley Trident, which first flew in 1962, the Lockheed Tristar, introduced in 1972, the Tupolev Tu-154, unveiled in the same year, and the DC-10, which debuted in 1971, are notable examples. But they soon fell from favour, making the sight of an aircraft with a middle engine now truly novel. Boeing's only trijet, the 727, has been out of production since 1984 (1832 were built over 22 years), but is still used by a few carriers. Once again it is Iran holding the torch for outdated aircraft, with Iran Aseman Airlines still operating two 727-200s as of July 2018 (it also has seven Fokker 100s). Kalitta Charters, based in Michigan, is another that still flies them.

McDonnell Douglas MD-80/90

The MD-80 (and its variant, the MD-90) has been out of service for almost 20 years, but a couple of US airlines still use them. Delta has 138, according to Airfleets.net, the oldest of which was delivered in 1987, while American Airlines has 30, the oldest of which arrived in 1989. Expect them to be phased out slowly but surely over the coming years.

See also: 10 amazing planes you'll never get to fly on

See also: The reason why Boeing plane models always start with a seven

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