Lufthansa’s recent announcement that it has converted one of its flagship Airbus A350-900 widebody airliners into a flying laboratory for climate change research provided a fresh snapshot of how radically airlines have had to rethink the best use of their equipment in the continued wake of the Covid pandemic. But the wider redundancy of more established aircraft like the A380 is even more starkly illustrated by new data from Spire Aviation, which tracks the decline in utilization of the high-capacity double-decker since the end of March 2020.
The data, gathered from Spire’s own satellite constellation, tracks the steep decline in flights in the A380, alongside that of two other four-engine, long-haul transports, the A340 and Boeing 747. It highlights how the number of A380s in commercial operation dropped from 234 at the start of 2020 to just 64 by the end of the year. Over the same period, the number of flights performed by the type plummeted from more than 28,000 in January 2020 to just 1,600 in December.
According to Spire, the dependence of the A380 business case on economies of scale put it “directly in the coronavirus firing line, as airlines struggle to fill even their smallest planes due to pandemic lockdown measures and weak consumer demand.”
Emirates remains the largest operator of the A380, but by late December it retained only 24 of the aircraft in active service out of a total of 115 that it operated in March 2020. Lufthansa, which had reportedly seen occupancy on its A380s fall to as low as 35 percent of seats, had to ground all 14 aircraft in its fleets, as did Air France, Qantas, Korean Air, and Asiana Airlines. More recently Qatar Airways confirmed that it will retire half of its 10-strong A380 contingent.
Airline planning now calls for newer, more fuel-efficient widebodies, like the A350 and Boeing’s 787 to replace the gap left by the A380. That, of course, assumes flight demand patterns haven’t shifted permanently away from needing that much capacity on a single aircraft.
Spire Aviation is part of data and analytics company Spire Global, which aims to help businesses and governments make decisions by identifying, tracking, and predicting the movement of resources and weather systems from its own constellation of more than 110 satellites. Spire produced an animation to illustrate the data for the A380's decline in 2020.