It was the key message Airbus executives wanted to get out there after last week’s shock announcement that production was to end of the huge A380 superjumbo: the plane would be flying for decades to come.
But it is clear problems with the doomed planes go much deeper than has been suggested as the A380s languish in a lonely airfield in Southern France.
Aerial pictures from Google Maps show at least three A380s awaiting a new home at the airfield storage facility. However, it has a second role — as a plane graveyard where aircraft that have no further use are stripped of their parts.
Two A380s stored have now begun the slow process of being broken down for spares just halfway through their expected lifetime.
Meanwhile, a clutch of A380 operators have said they will look to retire the plane well before its use-by date.
The crucial issue? For many airlines, the planes are too big to make a profit on aside from on the busiset routes and few firms want to snap up second-hand versions that could cost a motza to run.
“The plane is expensive not only to buy but also to operate. In addition to demanding airport modifications for its huge passenger load and million-pound bulk, economics demand that it be flown full to pay its enormous hourly costs,” Michael Goldstein, a columnist at Forbes said in 2018.
Last Thursday, Airbus chief executive Tom Enders confirmed longstanding rumours that the A380’s days were numbered. Production at the Toulouse factory, in southwest France, will end in 2021 after the construction of a final 14 planes for its biggest customer, Emirates.
However, Mr Enders was keen to point out that since hundreds of A380s had been built, and the planes had an operational life of 20 years plus, they would remain a familiar sight.
“Keep in mind that A380s will still roam the skies for many years to come and Airbus will of course continue to fully support the A380 operators,” Mr Enders added.
But despite the optimism, some A380s have already been put out to pasture.
LANGUISHING IN AN AIRLINE GRAVEYARD
Airlines either buy their planes outright — and that can be a cool $300 to $500 million for an A380 — or they lease them. If they own them then they have the option of selling them later to another airline; if they lease them, when the lessor takes them back they can usually spruce them up and lease them out to someone else.
That’s where the problem lies. Few airlines seem to be keen on taking on a cut-price A380.
Dr Peters Group, a large German leasing firm, owns several A380s which it has on contract to airlines including Singapore Airlines and Air France.
Last year, Singapore returned four of its earliest A380s, which at that point were only a decade old, as it replaced them with newer more fuel-efficient versions of the superjumbos.
Shorn of their livery and painted plain white, three of these were flown from the airline’s Changi hub to the remote Tarmac Aerosave facility at the Tarbes airfield at the foothills of the Pyrenees.
On its website, Tarmac Aerosave says its French facility has the biggest aircraft storage capacity in Europe, as well as recycling and dismantling capabilities. Its website has multiple photos of stripped aircraft.
Aerial images from Google Maps show several of the distinctive planes idling at the airfield. Their youth means they could fly again with relative ease but, instead, they are jammed in cheek by jowl with other planes all awaiting their fate. It’s not clear when the images were taken but three A380s were flown to the facility between late 2017 and during 2018.
The company insisted they had been looking for new homes for the planes and it did manage to shift one to another leasing company. But Dr Peters has struggled to shift the others.
The very-large aircraft market had “not developed positively in recent years”, Dr Peters’ chief executive officer Anselm Gehling said last year.
“The ongoing negative discussion about the A380 has not led airlines to increasingly rely on this type of aircraft.”
MORE PROFITABLE TO STRIP THEM DOWN
Negotiations with British Airways and Iran Air came to nought and the company has now decided to scrap the jets.
News agency Reuters reported that the breakdown of two A380s began in December. The planes will not be scrapped entirely but rather stripped of their most valuable components.
Selling off the plane component by component could raise as much as $A110 million, potentially more profitable than an expensive refit.
When a plane is broken down it is first drained of fluids, then parts are cleaned before being stored and sold. A final step is to recycle the plane shell.
Pictures have cropped up of the superjumbo already missing its engines, which have been leased back to their maker Rolls-Royce, and nose cone where the radar sits.
At least Singapore Airlines is replacing its older A380s with newer ones. Last November, Air France said it would hand back five of its A380s when their leases come to an end in 2021 leaving it with a small fleet of just five.
Qatar Airways wants to get rid of all its 10 planes. Earlier this month, the airline’s head, Akbar Al Baker, said each aircraft would be retired on its 10th anniversary beginning from 2024.
“Once we have paid our financial obligations, they will go,” he told the UK’s Aviation Analyst.
“We don’t see any secondary market opportunity. There are ex-Singapore Airlines A380 jets that nobody wants, and this year, there will be aircraft available to the second-hand market from Emirates.”
He said Boeing’s new version of the popular 777 jet, the 777-X, would replace the A380, including on Australian routes.
Malaysian Airlines has struggled to fill its A380s and aside from a few sojourns to Seoul and Tokyo they are now used to ferry Muslim pilgrims to and from the holy city of Mecca.
WILL QANTAS DITCH ITS A380s?
Mr Goldstein noted that Qantas was recently judged to be the world’s least fuel efficient airline, primarily due to the long distances covered by many of its flights and that it operates the A380 and the 747 gas guzzlers.
“Qantas is in the process of replacing its Boeing 747 aircraft with more efficient 787-9s. Can the replacement of Qantas A380s be far behind?” he asked.
Qantas has said that won’t be the case. In a statement to news.com.au, the airline said while it had cancelled an order for eight further A380s, it expected to operate the ones it already owned for some time.
“Qantas has 12 A380s which are used on flights to Los Angeles, Dallas, Singapore and London. A refurbishment of the fleet will begin in mid-2019,” a spokesman said.
Indeed, several airlines have had a happier experience with the superjumbo and show no sign of letting them go. Japan’s ANA and Singapore Airlines have taken delivery of models recently and Emirates has a number still to arrive.
British Airways keeps dropping rumours it may want to pick up a few more on the second-hand market to replace 747s on some of its busiest routes, if the price is right.
This should ensure at least some of the big birds will remain in the sky for another decade.
But, increasingly, we’re likely to see the ignominious sight of relatively young A380s lying forlornly on lonely airfields slowly being stripped of their parts.