"Too big, too expensive to operate, an anachronism" – those are some of the verdicts delivered on the A380, world's largest passenger aircraft.
Not too long after the A380 first took paying passengers into the skies – aboard a Singapore Airlines flight from Singapore to Sydney in October 2007 - the world's airlines were falling out of love with it.
The huge weight of the four-engine giant made it a gas guzzler, and when oil prices bolted skywards the A380 began to look like a dinosaur. Airlines that had signed for the superjumbo were cancelling orders. Launch customer Singapore Airlines was one of the first to become disenchanted, scrapping its first A380 after barely a decade of service.
Come the pandemic and most of the world's A380 fleet was put out to pasture in the deserts of the western USA and at the Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage facility near Alice Springs. Some in the aviation industry were questioning whether those mothballed A380s would ever find a place in the skies again.
For many flyers, that was a blow. Travelling aboard the A380 has always been a buzz. It's super smooth, quiet unless you're at the tail end and that big, wide cabin feels spacious and airy. For business flyers there's usually a bar, and the upper deck, which often has an economy section as well as business seats, is one of the best economy cabins you'll ever fly. But as air travel gets back on its feet, the four-engine giant is finding favour, earning it at least a reprieve, and possibly even a rebirth for some airlines.
According to data from Cirium, from a high of more than 10,000 A380 flights in January 2020, there were fewer than 1000 flights per month throughout the remainder of 2020. The trough came in June of that year when the number of A380 passenger flights fell below 50 for the entire month. Numbers stayed low throughout the first six months of 2021, but from mid-2021 demand for travel began to ramp up and A380s returned to the airways, ending with 3000 flights in December. Throughout 2022 the trend has continued, with about 5000 A380 flights by mid-year and rising. Today, about one-third of the world's A380 fleet is back in the air. By the end of 2022, the number of A380 flights is expected to be around 60 per cent of pre-Covid numbers.
Especially in markets where there's been a resurgence in demand for long-distance travel, such as Australia, the A380 is proving its worth as a workhorse. Today there are seven airlines operating A380s. That's just half the number that have flown the aircraft since 2007, but four of those seven airlines operate flights to Australia.
Qantas' affection for the superjumbo has not been dented by the pandemic. The national carrier has been operating A380s on its flagship QF1 flight between Sydney and London via Singapore since mid-June. After a brief appearance on the Sydney-Los Angeles route, Qantas has deployed all three of its active A380s on the kangaroo route to the UK. Boeing 787s currently operating services to Los Angeles from Melbourne and Sydney will eventually be replaced by A380s. Three more Qantas superjumbos are currently being refurbished in Abu Dhabi and the airline plans to return 10 of its 12-strong A380 fleet to service, with the full complement back in the skies early in 2024.
Since March 2022, just shortly after Australia opened its borders to allow unimpeded international travel, Emirates has been operating a twice-daily A380 service between Sydney and Dubai. EK415, which arrives in Sydney at dawn, continues to Melbourne. In the other direction, Emirates flight EK 409 is a daily non-stop Airbus A380 service from Melbourne to Dubai. Emirates also offers a daily A380 service between Dubai and Brisbane.
Emirates has been far and away the number one customer for the A380, acquiring a massive total of 118 in its fleet. According to Planespotters.net, 71 of those aircraft are still on active service. That's more than the total number of A380s currently operated by all other airlines combined. Emirates now operates an A380 service from Dubai to 27 cities including Port Louis on the island of Mauritius, Brazil's Sao Paolo and Amman in Jordan. The final A380 built before Airbus stopped manufacturing the giant plane was delivered to Emirates in December.
The other Gulf State carrier operating an A380 service to Australia is Qatar Airways, with a daily flight between Doha and Sydney. That's a surprise since Qatar CEO Akbar Al Baker is no fan of the A380, once describing it as the airline's "biggest mistake" at a 2021 webinar hosted by aviation news site Simple Flying.
The fourth airline flying A380s into Australia is Singapore Airlines, whose flight SQ231 is a daily service between Singapore and Sydney. The airline currently has 17 A380s in its fleet, with nine still in service.