Qantas' proud flagship, the double-decker Airbus A380, has just made its last international flight for at least the next three years – and there's an increasingly good chance that not all of the red-tailed superjumbos will return to the skies.
A solitary A380 had been laid up in Dresden, Germany, being fitted with refreshed first class suites, new business class seats and two revamped lounges at the front of the upper deck.
On Friday September 25 it made a 9,400km, 11-hour trek from the Dresden maintenance facility direct to Victorville, on the edge of California's Mojave Desert, joining nine of its siblings to wait out the worst of the COVID-19 storm.
Executive Traveller understands that two more Qantas A380s reside at Los Angeles, where the airline opened its own dedicated LAX maintenance hangar in January 2017.
All twelve A380s will remain grounded until at least the middle of 2023 pending the recovery of demand for air travel in the post-pandemic world.
"We're parking the A380s for at least three years," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said in June 2020.
With Qantas forecasting its international network to reach only 50% of its pre-pandemic capacity during the 2021-2022 financial year, Joyce said the A380s "don’t have any use during this period of time... the A380s have to remain on the ground for at least three years until we see those international volumes brought back."
Qantas predicts that international flights are "unlikely to restart before July 2021," with the exception of country-specific travel bubbles to the likes of New Zealand and Singapore – and those flights would be led by the smaller Boeing 787 and Airbus A330 jets "to establish the network as fast as possible."
Only six of Qantas' 12-strong A380 fleet has been upgraded with the new seats and cabins, and those would be the first to return when sufficient passengers are ready to travel on key long-range routes. However, that half-sized fleet might be all that makes it back from the desert.
"There is a potential to bring all 12 (A380s) back (into service), but there is a potential to bring less than 12 back," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce told Executive Traveller on May 5, after announcing a sweeping review of the airline's entire international fleet to reshape it around post-COVID travel demand.
"That will depend on what the recovery scenario looks like.... we don’t know when the big markets like the US and the UK, which use the A380s, will open, and when,” Joyce added.
A change in fortune
This uncertain fate stands in stark contrast to 2008, when Qantas took delivery of its first Airbus A380, with the super-heavyweight raising the bar for Qantas first class and business class.
Fast-forward a dozen years and the A380s have not only been mothballed but their book value was slashed as part of a $1.4 billion write-down for the 2020 financial year, which saw Qantas report a staggering $2.7 billion loss.
Ironically, Qantas' last-for-now A380 flight came as the last-forever A380 rolled off Airbus’ production line at Toulouse, France, and Qantas is just one of many airlines sidelining the Airbus A380s.
Air France announced in May it would scrap its entire Airbus A380 fleet with immediate effect, while Lufthansa's eight remaining superjumbos (six have already been let go) are moving into long-term storage will only come back “in the event of an unexpectedly rapid market recovery."
Likewise, Qatar Airways' CEO remarked in May that its ten A380s "will not return for at least a year, maybe never."
The fate of Singapore Airlines' flagship Airbus A380s 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.
All 19 of the airline's double-decker juggernauts have been grounded since March.
Singapore Airlines has already flagged that its fleet review "is likely to lead to a material impairment of the carrying values of older generation aircraft, particularly the A380 aircraft which would account for approximately $1 billion."
Singapore Airlines was the prestigious launch customer for the Airbus A380 in October 2007, and from December 2017 added a second tranche of newer A380s sporting upgraded first and business class designs.
Emirates, however, remains bullish and says it hopes to have all of its 115 A380s flying again by early 2022.
"The A380 has defined us," Emirates President Sir Tim Clark says of the planned superjumbo surge. "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."