Barely a day goes by without another major airline reversing plans to deactivate planes now earmarked for refurbishment.
Four years ago, the airline industry had bold plans. Wide-body planes were officially on their way out, with many airlines announcing plans to retire their A380s – the world’s biggest passenger jet – and replace them with more environmentally friendly narrow-bodies.
Even Emirates confirmed plans to ditch its iconic jumbos – it made sense given that AirBus, the A380 manufacturer, confirmed it would cease producing them from 2021 onwards.
But what a difference a pandemic makes. Instead, many of the retirements are being reversed, and a swathe of airlines are announcing plans to retrofit them – most notably their first and business-class cabins.
Unsurprisingly Emirates, which is busy retrofitting after previously identifying 2032 as the end date for its A380s, is among them. Now it’s confident some of its jumbos will still be flying in the 2040s.
And the likes of British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Delta Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Swiss and Air India are also busy retrofitting many of their existing wide-body planes too.
Given how much the global airline industry lost in 2020, it’s hardly surprising that so many buying plans got shelved – revenue shrunk from $838 billion in 2019 to just 382 billion a year later, according to IATA figures.
Instead of 2021, most airlines will have to wait until 2025 or 2026 for their new planes. Emirates, for example, has ordered 200 narrow-body aircraft for the end of 2025 and 100-150 wide-body jets between 2027 and 2033.
In the meantime, the A380s and other wide-body planes gathering dust during the pandemic, called back into service as passenger numbers steadily increase within touching distance of 2019 levels, have quickly begun to look outdated.
Accordingly, numerous airlines have been sprucing up their interiors as the aviation industry returns to pre-pandemic prosperity.
The early starters certainly had an advantage because once they decided to retrofit their cabins, they turned the pandemic to their advantage. Given that all their big planes were grounded it was the perfect opportunity to carry out the work.
A few strong trends are emerging during these retrofits, of which the most obvious was the move towards ‘Premium Economy’ to satisfy growing demand among holiday-makers starved of leisure travel during the restrictions.
Making way is ‘Business Class’, which has been in decline as companies cut their expenditure and respond to environmental concerns.
Often the selling point for premium economy is a vastly superior In-Flight Entertainment (IFE), even though narrow-bodies are increasingly retrofitting on planes used for flights in excess of four to five hours in partnership with the likes of Thales, BAE Systems, Panasonic Avionics Corporation and Collins Aerospace.
Often they don’t go the full hog, instead settling for the provision of a screen that the passenger can control using their own device – a boost for In-Flight Connectivity (IFC), an increasingly important determinant of passenger satisfaction.
Emirates has just completed a $2 billion retrofit program to revamp 67 of its 116 iconic double-decker A380s under the brand ‘Fly Better’ – along with 53 other aircraft.
As well as refitting the planes with the latest interiors, the changes will offer customers more sustainable choices.
The airline’s president Tim Clark promises the revamp will “deliver ever better experiences” to Emirates customers.
British Airways intends to spend hundreds of millions of pounds on upgrading its first, business and premium economy class sections onboard 12 A380s.
Considered to be quite outdated, the timely overhaul was confirmed by chief executive Sean Doyle to The Sunday Times.
It’s speculated BA might also change the positioning of its classes: at present, three different classes can be found on each deck.
Singapore Airlines took the decision to start refitting its 12 A380s in 2017, but it was somewhat delayed.
The pandemic provided the airline with the window it was waiting for, and it has since refitted most of the fleet.
The result is wholesale changes across its four classes: from touch-sensitive screens to the highest quality hand-stitched leather seating in first class.
Lufthansa had an advantage before it opted for A380 retrofits in 2023 – incompatibility with the A350s delivered by Airbus required substantial modification work by its in-house unit Lufthansa Technik.
This summer it confirmed plans to install the new Allegri business class product on its eight A380s and to keep them flying until the early 2030s, and also on the Boeing 747-8s. Deliveries of the Boeing 777X, originally due in 2020, have been postponed until 2025.
Installation work will begin next year – it is thought the 2-2-2 seating in business class will make way for either a 1-2-1 or 1-1-1 reconfiguration embracing "personalisation and choice" – and already six of the A380s could be in service by the summer.
Meanwhile, six A380s retired by Lufthansa during the pandemic have been sold back to Airbus by the end of 2023.
In other related news, Allegri has also been retrofitting A380s belonging to Lufthansa's sister airline Swiss; Air India is planning an interior retrofit plan for its 43 legacy Boeing wide-bodies; and Delta Air Lines is currently reconfiguring the cabins of nine of its Airbus A350-900s – planes previously operated by LATAM.
Finally, Cathay Pacific has confirmed “urgent" plans to retrofit cabins on its Airbus A330 jets, which contrary to ongoing trends, the rethink could see fewer A330s offer a premium economy option. More announcements concerning the future of the airline’s Business Class – a popular lie-flat bed service for overnight flights in Asia – are expected soon.
The current retrofitting trend is breathing new life into the A380, and it's further solidifying the post-pandemic recovery of the aviation supply chain industry. With the likes of Emirates, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa, Delta Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Swiss, and Air India already onboard, this is a solid flight path that promises to bring increased revenue to the industry.
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This blog is driven by Satair Marketing & Communication with input from both internal and external contributors.
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.