Qantas will phase out the mighty Airbus A380 from 2032, with the Airbus A350 taking its place on key long-range international routes to London and the USA.
The airline this morning confirmed the superjumbo sunset, saying it would “ultimately replace its 10 A380s with A350s from around FY32 onwards.”
In the interim, twelve A350-1000 jets will join the Qantas fleet from FY28 alongside a dozen Boeing 787s from FY27 in a unique split order “to progressively replace its existing A330s.”
Those A350s are separate to the twelve ultra-long range A350-1000s fitted with an extra fuel tank to undertake Qantas’ ambitious non-stop Project Sunrise flights to London and New York from the end of 2025 and supplement the A380-based network.
Executive Traveller understands these additional A350-1000s will be fitted with the same seats as the Sunrise jets, including those private business class suites and hopefully first class too, although without the Wellbeing Zone between premium economy and economy.
“Our A380s still have a lot of life left in them, especially given their recent cabin updates,” noted Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce – upgrades which include the airline's latest business class and premium economy, along with a fresh take on the upper-deck lounge.
“But as part of the pipeline we’re building, I can announce they will be replaced by the Airbus A350 from about FY32 onwards.”
On top of those dozen A350-1000s, Qantas says it has negotiated “options and purchase rights... which we can draw down on as needed for replacement and growth over the next decade and beyond.”
Although Qantas originally ordered 20 of the double-decker superjumbos, it took up only 12 – and during the pandemic decided to scrap two of those, leaving just ten A380s in the fleet.
A long history
Qantas was among the first airlines in the world to order the Airbus A380 – in fact, when then-CEO James Strong signed on the dotted line in November 2000, the double-decker jets were still known by their codename of the A3XX.
“We are delighted to see Qantas becoming not only an Airbus customer but also a launch customer for the all-new A3XX,” noted a press release issued by Airbus to mark the occasion.
“When it enters service in 2006, the A3XX will bring new standards of flying to the whole world. It will introduce wider seats and a more spacious cabin for all passengers, as well as 15-20% lower operating costs per seat than today's largest competing airliner.”
By the time Qantas collected the keys for its first superjumbo in September 2008 – two years later than Airbus promised – its order had swelled to 20 A380s, making it the aircraft’s second largest customer after Emirates.
These videos from Airbus and Qantas captured the delivery ceremony and the departure of that first A380 for Sydney.
“Taking delivery of the first of our A380s is an important occasion for us,” said then-CEO designate Alan Joyce at the time.
“It is both a culmination – following years of meticulous design development – and a beginning, with the A380 leading us into a new chapter in the story of Qantas.”
That said, the debut of Qanta’’ premium A380 experience was considered “underwhelming” in the wake of Singapore Airlines and Emirates, with their enclosed first class suites, spacious business class seats and of course Emirates’ upper deck cocktail bar.
“To be fair, Singapore Airlines and Emirates set a pretty high bar,” reflected one aviation executive who attended the launch, but preferred not to be identified so as to speak freely to Executive Traveller.
“When they pulled back the curtain on the A380 product it was all a bit underwhelming, especially the 2-2-2 business class layout and a narrow lounge which appeared more of an afterthought, a way to use otherwise dead space.”
But the era of the Qantas A380 had arrived, with 20 of the superjumbos due to be handed over through to 2015 – and Qantas was considering expanding its A380 fleet even further.
“We can see real reasons for us to take more A380s to allow for some growth and to replace some aircraft,” suggested then-CEO Goeff Dixon. “That’s our belief in how good this aircraft is.”
Twelve is enough...
As it happened, not only did Qantas freeze its order at 20 superjumbos but halted deliveries at number 12, in December 2011.
Those dozen A380s were sufficient to cover Qantas' flagship routes from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles and London via Singapore, with the superjumbos later spreading their wings to Dallas/Forth Worth and, during peak seasons, Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, a gaping hole the size of eight A380s sat on Airbus’ books for the next five years, until Qantas boss Joyce made public what everybody else had long suspected.
“Our intention is that we're not taking those aircraft,” he told the CAPA Australia Pacific Summit in August 2016.
“We have 12 aircraft, and the 12 aircraft we have are fantastic aircraft and actually serve the missions we have.”
“We believe there’s a network for 12: it’s very good and it works very well. We struggle with a network for the next eight, so that’s why we keep pushing them back.”
The superjumbo ‘sweet spot’
In February 2019, Qantas got around to making it official: “Following discussions with Airbus, Qantas has now formalised its decision not to take eight additional A380s that were ordered in 2006" the airline confirmed, adding that “these aircraft have not been part of the airline’s fleet and network plans for some time.”
The problem was that the world’s biggest commercial airliner was simply too big for its time and for an airline like Qantas.
The airline had only a handful of major ’point to point’ routes suited to the superjumbo's economy of scale, compared to the ’mega-hub’ models of Emirates and Singapore Airlines, where transit passengers could be funnelled onto dozens of popular routes.
Barely a year later, in March 2020, Qantas grounded all twelve A380s – along with the rest of its international fleet – as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.
The superjumbos were all flown to the USA for storage, with some residing in Qantas' A380 hangar at LAX while most were mothballed at the Victorville Southern California Logistics Airport, with arid conditions and specialised care protecting them against deterioration until high demand for international travel returned.
“The A380s have to remain on the ground for at least three years until we see those international volumes brought back,” Joyce said at the time.
One member of the fleet was already in Airbus’ Dresden facility in Germany being upgraded as part of a multi-million dollar modernisation program, and flew straight into deep storage at Victorville.
“There’s an aircraft that has plastic on brand new seats that came directly from Germany into the Mojave Desert,” Joyce recounted.
“We don’t think demand will get back to 2019 levels until 2024,” Joyce said, “and that’s why we’re assuming the A380s are going to be parked in the desert for those three years... and if we’re wrong and demand is a lot better than we expect, we can reactive the A380s within 3-6 months.”
In this instance, Joyce was more than happy to be wrong – the first A380 flew back home at the end of 2021, and more qere quickly assigned to the flagship Sydney-London and Sydney-Los Angeles routes,
“These were key markets for Qantas before Covid, and given how well they have recovered, we expect travel demand on these routes to be strong enough for the A380,” Joyce predicted.
The returning A380s are being upgraded with the airline’s latest business class and premium economy seats – using the same designs as the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners – along with two premium lounges on the upper deck and a refresh of the first class suites.
“But we won’t get all 10 of them back until well into 2024,” Joyce predicted, owing to the complexities of awakening a sleeping superjumbo.
“Just to wake up an A38O is 4,500 hours, or two months, of manpower,” Joyce has noted. “That’s 10 engineers working for two months in the Mojave Desert – for one plane.”
“They replace all 22 wheels, all 16 brakes, get rid of all of the oxygen cylinders and fire extinguishers.”
“The aircraft is put up on jacks in the middle of the desert. Its gear is tested, the aircraft’s engines are run in the desert to make sure that they're all functioning. That’s just to get out of the desert to Los Angeles or to another maintenance facility.”
“When the aircraft’s flown out, most of the aircraft then go through 100 days of maintenance on top of that.”
However, that’s where Qantas drew a line under its superjumbo fleet, with two A380s being retired “because they will be surplus to requirements.”
But those ten remaining superjumbos became super cash machines after the airline slashed their book value in mid-2020.
“We took a substantial write-down on the A380s in June 2020, our current written-down value is $490 million,” Qantas CFO and incoming CEO Vanessa Hudson told Executive Traveller in early 2021.
“Customers love the A380, and it also serves routes that have slot constraints, so flying an aircraft with a bigger capacity delivers significant cash for the group.”