“The A380 is on its last legs,” one media outlet reported after this week’s news that Airbus is to stop making the double-decker plane. Well, even though the last A380 will roll off the production line in 2021, reports of its imminent extinction are premature. There is plenty more life in the old plane yet.
Agreed, the very first editions of the plane – delivered to Singapore Airlines and flying in 2007 and 2008 – are now being broken up for parts. That lack of secondhand demand for what was a very expensive aircraft and has been scrupulously well looked after is, no doubt, one reason production is stopping. Any buyer of a machine that costs £200m is going to be interested in what they might reasonably expect to sell it on for after a decade. But another ex-Singapore Airlines A380 is now with Hi Fly, the Portuguese charter specialist. And others may well be snapped up – perhaps by existing A380 owners.
British Airways is no stranger to large, long-in-the-tooth aircraft. It has a fleet of 34 Boeing 747s, all of which were built in the 20th century. Some of them will still be flying five years from now. They are superbly maintained and endlessly refreshed internally. Equally important, they cost virtually nothing to own. If the price is right for the cast-offs from Qantas or Singapore Airlines, British Airways could be interested in buying some decade-old big jets to replace its dwindling 747s.
BA looks to me a potential buyer for four reasons. First, its home base is the most slot-constricted airport in the world: London Heathrow. (One reason Emirates has so many A380s is that it can extract maximum value from its slots at LHR.) With the 747s on the way out, it is possible the average passenger load per BA flight could actually start to fall. Expanding the current fleet of 12 A380s would counter this trend.
Next, it has plenty of experience of the aircraft type, from maintenance to galley operations to filling the things with passengers and cargo.
Third, assuming continued rise in passenger numbers, the plane looks just right for some BA routes where traffic is outgrowing the single daily 777 – Buenos Aires is a prime example.
The final reason is passenger preference. While the refrain from many aviation professionals has been that the A380 has “too many engines, not enough seats”, BA does not have a problem with either of these facets. Indeed, some of its 747s are configured with just 275 seats. Lots of space is devoted to premium cabins to keep travellers happy.
Since there is clear preference (though not necessary abject loyalty) for the Superjumbo, British Airways may steal a march on its rivals by offering the plane against the 777 or A330, which are both 1990s designs.
BA may even find that Gatwick is a good home for some A380s. Its long-haul fleet at the Sussex airport is all-Boeing 777, which does not give it much flexibility. And with Virgin Atlantic a constant thorn in the side on many routes, the A380 could help British Airways get an edge – as well as make the most of its slots at an airport that is ever-more crowded.
Don’t expect to be boarding a Superjumbo from Gatwick to Orlando just yet, but don’t be surprised if BA starts to dabble in the secondhand market soon. Yes, the costs of reconfiguring an A380 to a British Airways spec will be prodigious, but the sums could still add up – which would be good news for long-haul BA passengers in the long run.
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