Etihad Airways' impressive Airbus A380s look set to remain grounded until at least late 2021, with the superjumbos pulled from the airline's forward schedule and a spokesman saying they won't return to the skies until there's sufficient demand for the double-deckers.
According to industry body the International Air Transport Association, air travel won't return to pre-COVID levels until 2023-24.
The Gulf carrier stood down all ten of its A380s in March, with only the smaller Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 fleet taking wing as Etihad began rebuilding its network.
However, Etihad's timetable continued to list the A380 on key routes such as London, New York, Paris, Seoul and Sydney many months in advance.
That changed this past weekend, when Etihad removed all Airbus A380 flights from its schedule through to September 2021 – which is as far ahead as the airline allows bookings – in favour of the Boeing 787-9.
A spokesman for Etihad Airways has now confirmed the extended grounding for its A380s.
“As Etihad continues to focus on recovery and rebuilding our global network, we will continue to rely on the efficiencies and advantages of our twin engine wide-body aircraft," the spokesman told Executive Traveller.
"During this period, Etihad’s 10 Airbus A380s will remain grounded, until demand grows and there is sufficient appetite to reassess their viability."
Etihad CEO Tony Douglas has already raised the question of if its A380s will ever fly again, saying that while passengers love the double-decker cruiser, "I think it’s heavily handicapped by two engines too many, and other aircraft that can do the job far more efficiently, far more sustainably."
Sad time for the superjumbo
Most other A380 airlines around the world have mothballed their superjumbo fleet in the hope that better days lay not too far ahead.
Qantas' entire superjumbo fleet is being parked until at least the middle of 2023, pending the recovery of demand for air travel in the post-pandemic world, while Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker says his airline's ten superjumbos "will not return for at least a year, maybe never."
British Airways' A380s also remain stood down, while Air France announced in May 2020 that it would retire its ten A380s "with immediate effect."
Lufthansa, having already disposed of six A380s earlier this year, now says its remaining eight superjumbos "will be transferred to long-term storage and removed from planning. These aircraft will only be reactivated in the event of an unexpectedly rapid market recovery."
The fate of Singapore Airlines' 19-strong Airbus A380 fleet will be decided in the coming months following an extensive review of both the size and shape of the airline's network, and the jets needed to fly it.
As previously reported, Etihad has also confirmed it won't be returning to Brisbane even once the pandemic passes.
PREVIOUS [October 1, 2020] Etihad Airways could be the next carrier to deep-six the superjumbo, with airline CEO saying its fleet of ten Airbus A380s might never fly again.
Speaking on Etihad's own Altitudes podcast, Tony Douglas indicated the fate of its A380s – which are crowned by the extravagant three-room Residence supersuite, and nine spacious first class Apartments – hangs in the balance.
"The question as to whether they’ll ever fly again, to be equally direct about it, I’d say the jury’s out," Douglas admitted with candour.
He's of no doubt that passengers love the double-decker cruiser.
"Everybody loves the A380. It’s resounding. You know, the product that it presents, and the grace in which it does so. It was, for such a long time the pinnacle, the industry leader."
But from Etihad's perspective, the A380 was a plane it took on in better times, when the airline – under previous CEO James Hogan – dreamt of a brighter future for the Abu Dhabi-based flag carrier.
Douglas was already working to rescope Etihad's ambitions around being a smaller, more boutique airline with less reliance on an Emirates-style 'global crossroads' model, before COVID-19 grounded most of its fleet and brought the challenging economics of the A380s into stark relief.
"I think it’s heavily handicapped by two engines too many, and other aircraft that can do the job far more efficiently, far more sustainably," Douglas reflected.
"So I’m not trying to rule out the A380, it would break my heart even more to do so at this stage. But in the same way that 747s have finally been retired pretty much everywhere, I think we’re probably going to see now an acceleration of the same with the global A380 fleet."
If Douglas glances towards his east, near neighbour and staunch rival Emirates has already put some of its A380s back into the air, and outgoing Emirates President Sir Tim Clark hopes to have all 115 of them flying by 2022.
But if Douglas looks west, he'll spy Qatar Airways, where CEO Akbar Al Baker says his airline's ten A380s "will not return for at least a year, maybe never."
Douglas hasn't indicated when he would make a firm call on the fate of the Airbus A380.
Etihad also has 20 fuel-efficient A350-1000s on order, the first of which were due to begin flying in 2019.
The airline has yet to detail if those jets would include four first class suites similar to those of its Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, or if the A350s will top out at business class using the airline's Business Studio seats.