Every few weeks, a Malaysian Airlines A380 goes thundering along the runway at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, takes to the skies – and then, less than an hour later, returns to KLIA.
It carries no passengers, and its route is a lazy long-legged circuit which can extend west over the Malacca Straight, or east across the highlands, or take in both on a scenic flight of which tourists would be envious.
What’s behind these ‘flights to nowhere’, especially given that Malaysia Airlines intends to sell all six of its superjumbos?
They’re intended to keep the aircraft operational and in ready-to-buy condition, with each A380 taking turns on flights which have been anywhere from 21 minutes to 50 minutes long – or, we should say, short.
“They’re being operated on ‘mini-flights’ taking off from Kuala Lumpur and arriving back in Kuala Lumpur just to keep them serviceable,” explains Giles Gilbert, Malaysia Airlines’ Regional Manager for Australia and New Zealand.
“These are generally 20-40 minute flights just to keep the aircraft operational whilst we try and sell it.”
Malaysia Airlines has been trying to sell those A380s for almost a year now: the flag-carrier’s parent company Malaysia Aviation Group put all six superjumbos on the block in July 2021 as whole aircraft or as “components.”
And while some airlines are once again flying the A380 – including Lufthansa and Qatar Airways, which previously wrote off the double-decker jet – Group CEO Izham Ismail recently noted “at the moment, we have no plans to restore service for the A380s and are still targeting to exit the A380 fleet by the end of 2022.”
That’s still the plan, says Gilbert: “we’ve already made public our desire to release the A380s from the fleet by the end of this year.”
It’s been a long and bumpy road for the Malaysia Airlines A380s. The Oneworld member was among Airbus’ final customers to sign up for the superjumbo, taking its first delivery in 2012 – the last, which arrived the following year, was the 100th A380 produced.
Its choice of first class was generally not considered a cutting-edge product, with eight open first class suites (later rebranded as Business Suites) at the front of the lower deck; 66 business class seats (in an outdated 2-2-2 layout) on the upper deck; and 420 economy seats spread across both decks.
At one stage, children under 12 were controversially banned from the small upper-deck economy cabin.
The A380s were initially flown to London and Paris, and later appeared on selected regional routes such as Sydney.
But the poor economics of the A380 for Malaysia Airlines’ network and demand soon became clear, with then-CEO Christoph Mueller planning to retire them by 2018 in favour of the fuel-efficient Airbus A350.
The airline then considered a range of measures including spinning the superjumbos out into a seperate airline which would charter the A380s to bring Muslims across south-east Asian on the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Saudi Arabia, before their sale became the only option remaining on the table.