Airbus A380

The A380 – is the scrapheap all that remains for the “King of the Skies”?

Martina Roters
10.12.2019
2 pictures
7 minutes

The first A380s were scrapped. Is there really no second chance for the giants? WingMag will now shed light on the background.

Ascent and descent                                                     

We remember: The giant-sized aircraft measuring 72 metres in length, 24 metres in height and 80 metres in wingspan went scheduled in 2007 and also became a favourite of the passengers. But after only 11 years – considering that a life expectancy of 20-30 years is normal for an aircraft of this type – it was already grounded! Airbus CEO Tom Enders announced the production stop, because it wasn’t working out financially. Instead of the planned 1,500 units, the final figure was 251 with new orders only trickling in. Worse still, more and more orders were being returned – even if this was decided in favour of another, but smaller Airbus machine. Being only twin-engined, these aircraft were not so long-haul as the larger planes, making made them more economical in maintenance and kerosene consumption.

Tim Clark, CEO of Emirates, after all the owner of the world’s largest fleet of A380s, is of the opinion that the A380 went into production at an inopportune time: The price of oil had almost doubled since 2004, a few years earlier, and the jumbo aircraft could have taken to the skies with quite different kerosene costs per seat at all times.

Grim reality creates thinking games

At the start of the project, Airbus had still opted for engine capacity: What can be better and more efficient than a large-sized, long-range aircraft that transports as many people as possible between the major hubs to relieve the pressure on airports such as Frankfurt or London?

Tim Clark is convinced that the cost of the A380 on the Dubai-Los Angeles route, which Emirates operates with 515 seats, is still unbeaten even in 2019. Now we have to bear in mind that Emirates transports 615 people in the most “tightly packed” version, whereas only 380 people fit into a 777-9.

But wait a minute! The reader interested in flying might throw in a few comments: Can’t the A380 carry 800 passengers? Isn’t that what we were told? Yes they can. On the (aircraft registration) documents. But in practice it doesn’t work if everyone wants to board with maximum luggage.

And that has already been optimized, for example by the ingenious idea of replacing wide staircases with narrow ones and thus gaining another 80 seats.

And so the wildest ideas for saving the giants were circulating in aviation forums: Discounts for minimalists who only fly with on-board luggage, and conversion plans for the aircraft’s potential second life as a cargo plane (but as a double-decker, the A380 is not suitable for this) – although forum users unfortunately do not have the figures available to the technological and marketing departments of Airbus and Co. at their fingertips.

But even Emirates ended up buying A330s and A350s in order to fly to more cities – especially in Asia, where even the best marketing tricks still couldn’t fill their aircrafts.

Start-up and dissolution phenomena

Precious time was lost in the industrialization phase of the 4-million component project. As a result, orders were lost which could not be recovered later when market conditions changed, but which would have been urgently needed for amortization. To make matters worse, in 2012 a problem with microcracks in the wings became known and had to be rectified. In 2017 there was an emergency landing due to an engine explosion, which clouded the company’s image. Air France’s decision to remove its ten A380s from the flight schedule also seemed to have something to do with the fact that, according to insiders, every week one of the ten aircraft seemed to be stuck on the ground for technical reasons instead of soaring in the sky.

The end for the A380

Airbus has nevertheless drawn immense lessons from the A380 project: With the A350 everything works like clockwork…

10 years is no retirement age for a jet aircraft…

Technically such a jumbo jet does not age seriously if it is constantly well-maintained. And the passengers only see the cabin anyway, which is usually the youngest part of the whole plane, as it is only reasonable to replace the interior every few years. So a life expectancy of around 3 decades is by no means unrealistic.

What not many people are aware of so far is that leasing companies place far more aircraft orders than airlines. Meanwhile a commercial aircraft changes operator several times in its lifetime and also flies under different airline logos!

Is there actually a used aircraft market? It really does exist, and it operates quite similarly to the used car trade. Even on the internet. There you will find everything from simple first names with mobile phone numbers to reputable corporate websites with 40 years of company history and millions of available component part numbers.

… but with the A380 everything is colossally different

When Singapore Airlines did not renew its 10-year leasing contract and returned the aircraft to its lessor Doric, Hi Fly Malta got the first second-hand A380 (again through leasing, with a 6-year contract). It was precisely this aircraft that made the headlines in 2018 when it rescued large numbers of Scandinavian holidaymakers: After the flight plan had turned into chaos due to massive IT problems at Rhodes Airport, many passengers became stranded. The Scandinavian Thomas Cook subsidiary chartered the Hi-Fly A380 for lack of other capacities and set up a Scandinavian air bridge in 4 flights. But this intervention was the only one of its kind so far.

Start-up airlines generally rent used machines. Ryanair started this way. And also the renowned Qatar Airways. Or companies that are affected by political embargoes, and therefore excluded from sales transactions.

The issuing house Dr. Peters Group, which owns the other four leasing aircraft returned by Singapore Airlines, has already exhausted all these options for two A380s: Negotiations with airlines such as British Airways, Hi Fly and Iran Air did not lead to the desired financial result.

Airbus A380

Last destination airport: Tarbes-Lourdes in France

And so the planes ended their last flight at the airport of Tarbes-Lourdes. In addition to the airport, where pilgrims arrive daily in Lourdes for the Marian Apparition Grotto, Tarmac Aerosave maintains an oversized aircraft parking lot – for jets.

The company specialises in aircraft maintenance, storage, and dismantling/recycling.

Normally, the chances are not bad that the wheels of the rejected aircraft will take off again from the runway floor: Almost every fourth wheel has made it back into the air from here. What we must bear in mind here is that: the longer the machine stays on the ground, the worse the chances become.

But if recycling doesn’t work, then at least a scrap disposal of the finest will take place at this location.

A bankruptcy-threatened or a commercially profitable flying machine?

With the two A380s, praying didn’t help either: So the fund company took the last option: The sale of components is in full swing, so far with a “solid result”, as WingMag was informed by Dr. Peters Group.

After all, thanks to Tarmac Aerosave, the two jumbos will become gigantic organ donors. Each component is carefully dismantled, packed and above all, liveried so that nothing stands in the way of a possible recommissioning. The recycling rate is 92%.

Even the engines are up in the skies once more – they have been leased out again, they flush 480,000 US dollars per fund into the coffers every year and play a decisive role in ensuring that the A380 does not end up being a bankruptcy vulture for small investors. Despite all the prophecies of doom, the fund companies are out of debt and are even making payments again.

Supply and demand

It is difficult to say how the second-hand market will develop. For narrow niches, the “King of the Skies” will also continue to be an attractive option in the flying business – and all the more so if you can get it at an attractive price.

Malaysia Airlines, for example, has its subsidiary Amal, which specializes in pilgrimages from Southeast Asia to Mecca and Medina – exclusively in A380s. Or the Japanese company ANA, which flies 10 times a week from Tokyo to Honolulu, the honeymoon destination for Japanese.

Airbus also has an entire engineering department and a dedicated aircraft at its disposal for testing purposes, not to mention spare parts. It is, however, questionable whether they will ever leave the shelves:

Emirates has already taken 2 machines out of service and uses them as its own spare parts stockroom.

The next two giants are already awaiting their fate in Tarbes-Lourdes and others will take their last flight to be finally scrapped and their spare parts recycled to join all those already flooding the market.

Airbus A380

Pictures © WingMag

by Martina Roters

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