With room for 485 passengers across two decks, crowned by bespoke first class suites and an upper deck lounge – two of them, in a 2019 upgrade – the Airbus A380 was the pride of Qantas’ fleet.
Since its debut in 2008, the superjumbo dominated premium routes from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore, London, Los Angeles, Dallas/Forth Worth and (on a seasonal basis) Hong Kong.
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic changed all that. Since March 2020 the A380s have been not just grounded but mothballed, with most in hibernation at a dedicated aircraft storage facility on the edge of California’s Mojave Desert.
As for how long they’ll remain there: that’s the question to which nobody, not even Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce, can provide a definite answer.
While Joyce had said he hopes to “reactivate all of the A380s” in 2024, this hinges on the demand for international travel returning to 2019 levels.
It’s only when the number of passengers to Qantas’ key A380 destinations reaches that pre-pandemic peak that bringing back these massive, fuel-thirsty four-engine jets will make financial sense.
“Our intent is still to bring all those aircraft back when demand fully recovers, because there will be really strong demand for those aircraft on some key routes,” Joyce affirms.
However, Joyce has tipped that some of the superjumbos could come back even sooner: as many as six could take wing from the end of 2023 with London and Los Angeles in their sights.
“We'll activate the first six aircraft very rapidly because we’ll have the pilots to do it,” Joyce told Executive Traveller in May 2021.
Those are likely to be the six A380s which have been upgraded from their original 2008 configuration with new business class and premium economy seats, two upper deck passenger lounges and a refresh for the first class suites.
"Half the aircraft have been reconfigured with brand new product,” Joyce recounts.
“There's an aircraft that has plastic on brand new seats that came directly from Germany into the Mojave Desert" for storage.
"We've spent hundreds of millions of dollars on those new seats, it's sitting there in there desert waiting to be operated again, and we think there’ll be huge demand for them when we get back."
Indeed, the 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 shared with Executive Traveller in February 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.”
Again, this all relies on how many people are eager to fly on the former A380 routes – and until the numbers reach tipping point on Qantas’ superjumbo spreadsheet, the Boeing 787-9 will serve as the airline’s de facto international flagship.
In addition to the fuel efficiency of its modern twin-engine design, the Dreamliner’s relatively large premium cabin – 42 seats in business class and 28 in premium economy, out of a total of 236 seats – favours higher-priced fares.
"The 787 is such a good aircraft,” Joyce has remarked. “It can replace entire A380s (and) 747s in terms of range (and) costs are even better than an A380.”