To fly, or not to fly? That, it seems, is the question surrounding the A380, and two powerhouse Gulf airlines have very different answers.
This week saw Emirates send a handful of Airbus A380s back into the skies, following long months during which all 115 of its superjumbos were grounded.
The A380s – known for their first class suites, private showers and walk-up cocktail bars – departed Dubai for London and Paris, with Emirates also announcing a second daily superjumbo for London and a daily A380 for Amsterdam as of August 1.
In a celebratory press release, Emirates’ Chief Operating Officer Adel Al Redha said "we are delighted to bring (the A380) back into the skies to serve our customers on flights to London and Paris from 15 July, and we are looking forward to gradually introduce our A380 into more destinations according to the travel demand on specific destinations."
Barely one hour away across the Persian Gulf, arch-rival Qatar Airways responded by highlighting its decision not to fly the A380, choosing instead of keep its superjumbos grounded for the foreseeable future – a future in which they may never return at all – in favour of the modern mid-sized Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.
"As we rebuild our network, passengers can rely on us to operate an honest schedule of flights to take them where they want to go, using the right size aircraft to offer sensible capacity on each route," noted Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Akbar Al Baker. "As a result, we will not resume flying our fleet of A380 until demand returns to appropriate levels."
Qatar talks up its mixed, modern fleet
While Emirates built its world-conquering fleet around two of the largest long-range jets – the 517-seat Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777, with typically 360 seats – Qatar Airways played a broader hand which includes the 254-seat Boeing 787-8, the 283-seat Airbus A350-900 and the 327-seat Airbus A350-1000.
And it's those jets, not Qatar's ten Airbus A380s or even the Boeing 777s, which are line to become the airline's international workhorses.
The 49 A350 models will be "the aircraft of choice for the most strategically important long-haul routes to the Americas, Europe and Asia-Pacific regions" while the 30 Boeing 787s – and its first Boeing 787-9s, taking wing in early 2021 with an all-new business class – will "offer the right capacity on routes in Europe while markets recover."
While nodding to the obvious commercial reasons for his A380s to stay sleeping, Al Baker also played the green card, noting that on most one-way flights the A380 emitted between 80-95% "more CO2 per block hour than the A350", with the A350 saving between 16-20 tonnes of carbon dioxide per block hour compared to the A380.
"We take our responsibilities to care for the environment seriously and sustainability is at the forefront of our business planning across the group," Al Baker expanded. "This is why we have an average fleet age of less than five years, one of the youngest in the world."
As previously reported, this includes phasing out its entire Boeing 777-300ER and 777-200LR fleet by 2024 in favour of new Boeing 777X jets as part of a ‘green modernisation’ push which will also see the last Airbus A380 scuppered by 2028.
“We are very conscious about our emissions and we are very keen to keep on introducing fuel-efficient aeroplanes,” Al Baker told Executive Traveller. “We are retiring the entire (Airbus) A330 fleet now, we are retiring all the 777s over the next three to four years, we are retiring the A320 aeroplanes.”
Al Baker also said that the new-for-old swap would see its Boeing 787-9s eventually “replace the 787-8s”, although this is tied to a delayed delivery of the factory-fresh Dreamliners from at least 2022. “We plan to to reduce our emissions and have carbon-neutral growth over a period of time.”
Emirates: all A380s flying by mid-2022
For its part, Emirates aims to have all its superjumbos soaring once again by April 2022.
“The A380 has defined us,” says Emirates President Sir Tim Clark. “As demand returns, and given the slot availability at prime hubs, there will be a place for it. I’m hoping by April 2022, all our A380s will be flying again.”
While that could be seen as somewhat optimistic, given that the International Air Transport Association reported last week that it predicts global demand for air travel may not return to 2019 levels until 2023, it also represents Emirates President Sir Tim Clark’s confidence in the shape of the recovery curve.
Emirates hopes to not only ride but in some ways fuel the post-pandemic travel wave, with increased appeal for its lower-cost ‘basic business class’ package – which provides the personal space of a business class seat without inclusions such as a chauffeur drive, lounge access or advance seat selection – because people will be prepared to pay more for greater distancing” on board.
Similar changes in thinking could also prove an added kickstart to Emirates’ all-new premium economy cabin, which Clark has described as a railway-style “sleeperette” design that will fully cradle the legs and feet, with a 10-inch recline and around 38 inches of pitch and has already been fitted to some A380s at Airbus' superjumbo facility in Toulouse.
Clark has previously told Executive Traveller that on Airbus A380s fitted with first class, the premium economy cabin will be located at the front of the lower deck with “as many as 56 seats.”
It will also be separate to economy class in order to provide “a degree of exclusivity... and not just a curtain, it'll be a proper cabin. We're aiming to make it a quiet zone, a comfortable zone.”