More air travellers than expected will board an Airbus A380 this summer.
In a move that seemed unlikely just a few years ago, most airlines that own A380s have announced plans to return it to service for the peak season. According to reports, 70 percent of the original A380 operators will fly the aircraft this summer. At least 10 carriers will offer routes on the superjumbo in the coming months and two more – Thai Airways and Qantas – are likely to follow in late 2023 or early 2024.
Then there are the 85 in-service aircraft operated by Emirates. The Dubai-based carrier is far and away the world’s biggest A380 customer, with an additional 36 in storage as of February 2023. Unlike other airlines that began to rethink their needs during the pandemic, it has remained firmly committed to making the A380 an integral part of its fleet for years to come.
For an aircraft model that officially ended production four years ago and was described as one of the aviation industry’s “biggest casualties of the pandemic,” there sure will be a lot of A380s in the skies in the coming months.
READ MORE: The rise, fall and (temporary) rise of the A380
So many A380s will be flying this summer in part because supply chain challenges have made it difficult for airlines to meet expected travel demand. A drop in jet fuel prices has also changed the affordability considerations for the A380, which has always had high fuel consumption costs for its four turbofan engines.
At Tarmac Aerosave, which is Europe’s top aircraft storage company with the capacity to host 280 aircraft and 120 engines at its three sites, EVP for sales and business development Frédéric Denise said he was initially a bit surprised that customers wanted to return their stored A380s to service.
“But there is such a high market demand for capacity (both passenger and cargo) and not enough new aircraft produced and delivered so it makes sense for most of the A380 operators to bring them back into their fleet,” Denise told the Satair Knowledge Hub.
Of course, airlines cannot merely decide to take the A380 out of storage one day and fly it the next. To begin with, the aircraft still have to be kept up to standards set by Airbus while stored.
“All A380 aircraft at Tarmac Aerosave, both at our Tarbes (France) and Teruel (Spain) facilities, were under long-term storage procedures defined by Airbus technical documentation,” Denise said. “This includes the specific protection of key systems such as engines and landing gears as well as a number of periodic inspections and maintenance tasks that have to be performed on the aircraft.”
When Tarmac returns an A380 to its operator, as it recently did for Etihad, it will first complete storage procedures like the ones described above and then perform a customised work package known as a bridging check to transition the aircraft’s inspection and maintenance programmes back to the airline.
In addition to the workload for storage facilities like Tarmac, the decision to bring parked A380s back into service is also creating a demand for used serviceable material (USM).
For operators wanting to get their superjumbos back into service as quickly as possible, USM can be a smart option – not only because of shorter lead times but because of its lower price.
In recent years, Satair has taken five end-of-life A380s for part-outs. Satair’s Head of USM, Nicolai Hertz, said the A380’s return to service has increased demand for those parts and many customers are now looking to Satair and its recently-acquired partner VAS Aero Services for support.
“There are real challenges with the whole supply chain issue, especially with the A380s being out of production,” he told the Satair Knowledge Hub. “There is a huge demand for USM. The A380s we have parted out over the past couple of years have helped to ensure parts availability and helped operators get their aircraft back into service quicker than if they would have had to wait for new parts to be produced.”
With Airbus no longer producing A380s – the manufacturer officially ended the programme in 2019 – Hertz said that the parts taken from permanently-grounded A380s will help ensure that those still in operation can continue to fly safely for years to come.
“We are using some of those dismantled aircraft at VAS Aero Services to ensure that we have parts available through Airbus programme management to support the operation of those aircraft going forward,” he said. “That is both in regards to Airbus Proprietary Parts and, equally, different components that we are having overhauled in order to get them ready to go out on aircraft again.”
Like others in the industry, Hertz said that it is difficult to determine what the A380’s unexpected return to operations for the 2023 summer season will mean in the long term. Emirates remains fully committed to the aircraft and its enormous fleet alone is enough to ensure that the A380 will continue to play an important role in passenger travel for years, if not decades.
But with other operators’ fleets much smaller and their long-term plans for the model still unknown – coupled with the decision by airlines like Air France to drop the A380 completely – it’s hard to predict just what will happen with the non-Emirates fleet. For those in the end-of-life business like Hertz, that means some tough decisions about whether or not to part out additional A380s in anticipation of future needs.
He said that Satair is currently evaluating whether to purchase additional A380s for dismantling but has to weigh the substantial costs of acquiring and tearing down the aircraft against the uncertainty of the situation.
“The challenging thing in all of this, of course, is to determine how big the demand for material is going to be moving forward,” he said. “We know that many of the operators have plans to keep operating them for a long time. The aircraft lease rates for the aircraft are attractive, so therefore it has become a workhorse across many operators especially when aircraft capacity is limited and demand is high. However, like any other fleet that is out of production, the number of aircraft in operation will naturally shrink over time.”
Regardless of any new end-of-life purchases, he said that Satair will remain well-positioned to support A380s operators in years to come. In the meantime, Hertz said he was happy to see more and more A380s going back into the skies especially citing that the platform is highly favoured by passengers for its comfort and many of the aircrafts coming back are not yet nearing retirement age.
“It’s a beautiful, fantastic aeroplane and the fact that they are returning to service means that there is a demand for the product, which is great,” he said.
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Satair is a world leading provider of aftermarket services and solutions for the civil aerospace industry. Satair is a stand-alone company and Airbus subsidiary.