Coronavirus, air travel and the A380 superjumbo: Global lockdown signals the end for the world's largest passenger plane

The global lockdown has hastened the demise of the world's largest passenger plane, once feted as the saviour of commercial air travel.

As airlines around the world ground fleets in the face of border closures and tumbling demand, some are going further and retiring planes altogether, with the super-jumbo, the A380, at the front of the queue.

German flag carrier Lufthansa is the latest to put some of its double-decker behemoths out to pasture, with six of its 14 A380s now off the books. British Airways has sent six of its 12 of the Airbus aircraft to a facility in France for mothballing. 

The spread of the coronavirus has forced airlines around the world to cut capacity by two thirds since January, with Europe the region hardest hit. Filling even a modestly sized aircraft is proving hard work for airlines, let alone a plane most often kitted out to seat 525 passengers.

At the time of writing, there were just two A380s in the air, both Lufthansa aircraft operating repatriation flights between Thailand and New Zealand. 

Announcing its decision to cull the A380s from its fleet, Lufthansa said: "It will take months until the global travel restrictions are completely lifted and years until the worldwide demand for air travel returns to pre-crisis levels."

And this is why, with levels of unprecedented uncertainty in aviation, the writing is on the wall for the A380.

Alexandre de Juniac, CEO of the global airline association Iata, this week warned that there were no guarantees airlines would return to growth after the pandemic.

"We have never shuttered the industry on this scale before," he said. "Consequently, we have no experience in starting it up. It will be complicated."

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It is likely then that in the same way airlines have culled routes, with only the largest operators keeping open the most popular services, carriers will want to fly only planes it knows it can fill. 

Indeed, in announcing the retirement of the A380s, Lufthansa also said it would be permanently grounding five 747s.

British Airways is continuing to operate a number of routes, to the US and Asia, but seems not to deem its A380s viable for those services, using instead smaller aircraft. For example, it is currently flying a 787 Dreamliner to Los Angeles, a service that previously relied on the A380. 

"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."

Never will this be more pertinent than in a post-pandemic world. 

Why did the A380 not work?

The aircraft, which when configured in two classes can hold more than 600 passengers, was launched in 2005 to much fanfare. Its size was designed to alleviate congestion at busy airports and handle passenger demand on popular routes. 

Airlines, however, though initially intrigued, did not buy into the project and sales stalled. In recent years, carriers have lined up to announce plans to ditch its A380s, in favour of smaller, more agile, and easier to fill aircraft. Air France, Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines are among those to initiate plans to retire or move on its super-jumbos; in what must have been devastating for Airbus executives, some have been stripped for parts.

Last year, the French aircraft manufacturer began to wind down production, and anticipated it will stop production entirely by 2021; it has a backlog of just nine aircraft. 

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 to maintain than the A380.

The Telegraph, London

See also: Will coronavirus mean the end of the the iconic 747 jumbo jet?

See also: What the demise of the four-engine plane means for travellers

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