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."
Those 20 superjumbos were 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."
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 – two superjumbos will now return in June 2022, well ahead of schedule, to bolster the Sydney-Los Angeles route from July 1, with three more arriving by November for the Sydney-Singapore-London service (these routes will restart on December 18 2021 but with a Boeing 787-9).
"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 notes.
To date, six A380s have been 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.
The refurbished A380s, which will also have been repainted in the airline's 2016 'Silver Roo' livery, will be the first to come back into service.
Once the first five red-tailed A380s take wing by November 2022, Qantas expects five more will be back in the skies by early 2024, "with timing dependent on how quickly the market recovers."
However, that's where Qantas will draw a line under its superjumbo fleet, with two A380s being retired "because they will be surplus to requirements."
But those ten remaining superjumbos could become 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 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."
Qantas is now one of only a handful of airlines to commit to the Airbus A380, along with stalwart Emirates (which says it won't retire its A380s until the mid-2030s), Singapore Airlines and British Airways.
Qatar Airways remains on the fence, having said that half of its 10-strong superjumbo fleet would be retired and the fate of the other five remains to be seen.
But Air France, Lufthansa, Etihad Airways, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways have all called time on the A380, while Korean Airlines and soon-to-be-merged Asiana Airlines will put their combined A380 fleets out to pasture in the coming years.