It's the world's largest passenger plane, capable of carrying almost 900 passengers in a double-decker fuselage so huge, so hulking, that getting airborne feels like a minor miracle. Yet the A380's range is just as vast, making it a star of long-haul, connecting Heathrow with the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore and Johannesburg. Of course, most of these giant airframes have lain dormant throughout the pandemic, but British Airways' A380s will return to service next month, blazing new trails from LHR – at last.
Their destinations? Alas, no Asian metropolis or winter sun haven: rather, the cities of Madrid and Frankfurt, some few thousand kilometres short of its usual legs. The news has enlivened the aviation industry this week – not only as a sign of further recovery after a perilous 18 months, but for the novelty of those pip-squeak routes. The airline intends to break its pilots in gently, you see, so will briefly eschew long-distance stints for flights of just 90 minutes (Heathrow-Frankfurt) while it re-trains staff on the airframe.
BA announced the move on Wednesday, confirming it will operate its A380s "to a number of short-haul destinations to allow for crew service familiarisation in November". Soon after, its regular long-haul services will resume: "to Miami and Los Angeles in the US, as well as Dubai in December".
How to score a seat on the mammoth flights to modest destinations? Unfortunately, BA has given no indication of how (or indeed, whether) passengers will be able to book this specific service: it has not revealed how often the flights will operate, nor the date that they'll cease. However, according to frequent-flyer website God Save The Points (GSTP), the A380 stints will begin on November 8, and will be served by four aircraft – heading to Frankfurt in the morning, and Madrid in the afternoon.
British Airways is set to welcome back its first A380 aircraft in November. Photo: BA
For aviation enthusiasts, the novelty will be hard to resist – but this is just one of the many bizarre flight routes that the pandemic has inspired. The past 18 months have witnessed a wealth of weird and wonderful jaunts: from 'flights to nowhere', to ultra-long-haul cargo routes to retrieve PPE and vaccines from China, with journeys lasting over 30 hours.
The curiosities began last March, as countries scrambled to repatriate citizens left stranded by travel bans and border closures. We saw the first non-stop service between Honolulu and Gatwick to repatriate cruise passengers, while British Airways 777s flew direct from Lima to Heathrow multiple times. The route, which would usually entail a stop-over, was provided especially to repatriate Britons stranded in Peru.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. "We operated the first ever non-stop flight from Addis Ababa to Salt Lake City – bringing US missionaries home," says Matthew Purton of Air Charter Service, which took on many such repatriations. "We also flew direct from Mozambique to LA – repatriating employees from a resource mining company – and made various connections between West Africa and Brazil."
Heathrow, too, welcomed a motley crew of new arrivals. Usually, turboprop (propeller) aircraft are a rarity at LHR, as they're too slow and small to fit into regular traffic plans, but with the temporary closure of London City Airport last April, the Loganair/British Airways service from the Isle of Man (BA3287) called at Heathrow's T5 instead. Multiple times a week, the tiny ATR 42 landed at our super-sized global hub, a route the airline hadn't offered for over 20 years.
Other unusual Heathrow sightings included TUI's repatriation flight of cruise passengers in March, from Marseille in a 767 (pre-pandemic, TUI never strayed outside its Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and regional bases) – and a rare visit by EuroAtlantic Airways, a Portuguese airline.
With leisure travel illegal for large chunks of 2020, passenger airlines quickly pivoted to cargo flights – in a bid to claw back some cash, as well as bolster the domestic battle against Covid. The likes of BA and Virgin Atlantic filled their aircraft cabins and bellies with PPE, vaccines, medical supplies and more, retrieved from Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Before Covid, Heathrow usually handled an average of 47 cargo movements per week, but that number quickly swelled by over 250 per cent.
"There was definitely a feeling of pride conducting these flights, mixed in with gratitude," says Ben Williams, senior first officer at Virgin Atlantic. "Pride from bringing much needed protective equipment to help NHS staff and also help the company earn some much needed revenue, and gratitude from being in the fortunate position of being able to conduct these flights at all whilst other colleagues were furloughed or worse, facing redundancy."
Even now, the deliveries keep coming from China, though the country remains off-limits to Britons – even for exhausted pilots at the end of a long trans-continental shift. Crews are unable to enter the country, so airlines have devised 'ultra long-haul' flights of 30 hours-plus, which depart from the UK with two crew teams on board: one to fly the outbound leg, and the other the return journey.
"It's the shift that nobody wants," one Captain from a rival airline told Telegraph Travel, "but it keeps [our licence] current and we're just glad to be flying. One team sleeps on the journey outbound, so they're ready to work on the return shift – the cabin lights as soon as possible when we're airborne – but when you see that 30-hour flight time you do have to psych yourself up."
The Telegraph, London