MIAMI – Today, Air France (AF) will be retiring the A380-800 from its fleet with immediate effect, marking the occasion with a special flight to commemorate A380’s service to the airline.
In this analysis, we take a look at the current industry situation as it pertains to aircraft retirements, the history of the Airbus A380, and a moment-by-moment rundown of its final flight for the French flag carrier.
It is an incontrovertible truth that the world we are living in today is not the same place it was just a few short months ago. Things we took for granted are no longer a given. And the very rules which underpin society and morality have become blurred and confused.
We interact now in a way that would ordinarily be considered rude. There is no doubt the effect of the COVID-19 global pandemic has changed all of our lives in ways we could never imagine.
For some industries, life has carried on more or less as normal, just with the added challenge of enforcing social distancing. However some industries are having terrible trouble riding out the storm of COVID-19.
The first industries to be affected are those that center around leisure and recreation. Gyms, leisure centers, cafes, pubs, and clubs have all been closed for many weeks and months.
However, these industries have weathered the tempest significantly better than the aviation industry has. Accessibility underpins the leisure industry, and with limited flights and almost no leisure traffic, the entire industry is on a knife-edge.
COVID-19 and Commercial Aviation
As there is no leisure industry, there is very little demand for flights. Government restrictions on non-essential travel, the closing of borders, and tough lockdown measures have seen airlines grounding fleets all over the globe.
Additionally, numerous airlines have been forced to retire older and less fuel-efficient aircraft. The only sector booming at the moment is for cargo transport. Medical supplies and PPE are being moved around worldwide on a daily basis, often on converted passenger aircraft.
Many airlines have retired entire fleets of aircraft: Delta Air Lines (DL) with the MD-88 and MD-90, American Airlines (AA) with the Boeing 767, Qantas (QF) with the stunning Boeing 747, and even Air Canada (AC) announcing the retirement of the Boeing 767 and A319.
Most surprisingly of all was Emirates (EK) announcing plans to not return 40 A380 to passenger service at the end of the pandemic. As the largest operator of the type with 115 of the aircraft to date, this will be a significant blow of capacity in the Middle East.
For many years, legacy airlines operated on a hub-and-spoke model. Relying on large wide-body aircraft to connect global hubs and feed into a network of smaller aircraft to service surrounding smaller cities and towns.
By the mid-nineties, engine technology had improved and twin-engine aircraft such as the Boeing 767, Boeing 777 and A330 were starting to dominate the long haul market. These efficient aircraft made connecting smaller secondary cities viable.
The trend continued well past the millennium and now the traditional hub-and-spoke model has become less significant. The more fuel-efficient aircraft of today make even more obscure city pairings viable.
History of the Airbus A380
In 2007, the Airbus A380 made her debut with Singapore Airlines (SQ). The giant aircraft featured two full-length decks, unrivaled capacity and luxury. Sadly, the changing times and consumer habits had more or less rendered her obsolete before she was to even fly.
Built in Toulouse France, the A380 is a truely remarkable aircraft. The aircraft measures some 72m long and has a wingspan of nearly 80m. Powered by four Engine Alliance GP7270 powerplants, each capable of producing 36,980kgs of thrust.
The ten A380 aircraft operated by AF were configured with 516 seats, 9 La Premiere seats, 80 business class seats, 38 premium economy, and finally 396 in regular economy class, making the fleet one of the densest A380 seating layouts.
It goes without saying that this behemoth of aviation has inspired minds and hearts alike all over the world.
AF380 – The Last Waltz
Today Friday June 26, 2020, is a sad day for French Aviation. AF will be retiring the A380-800 from the fleet with immediate effect. But not before one final run around the block on a special flight commissioned to commemorate “Big Bird” and her service to the airline.
The flight is to leave Paris Charles de Gaulle (LFPG/CDG) at 15:30L 13:30 UTC for a two-hour trip. Operating under flight number AF380, the chariot is to be F-HPJH c/n 099.
A relatively new airliner by the standards of long-haul carriers delivered in May 2012, she would not even make her 10th birthday in service. Whilst it is not uncommon for short-haul aircraft to change hands quickly, long-haul aircraft can serve for many years. Some of the oldest Boeing 747 and 767 that are still in service have passed the magical 30-year mark.
A flight to Commemorate
Before such a momentous occasion, there must always be photos to take and pleasantries to expand. Anne Rigali, Air France CEO, released photos directly to her twitter feed before departure.
The proposed route takes the aircraft in roughly a circle, from Paris, turning south towards Montpelier, east towards Nice, then back north over Dijon completing the circuit.
As the giant airliner took some 10 minutes to taxi, it is time for a little AF related trivia. Is it a true statement that the A380 is the first Airbus aircraft to be withdrawn from active AF service without an airframe write off?
At 15:57L, the bird departed on the westerly facing and longest runway at CDG 26R. Climbing out with her trademark gentle grace the flight skirted north of the city before turning to the south.
Just 13 minutes after departure, the aircraft reached her planned cruising altitude of 21,000ft or FL210.
At this point in most flights, passengers would be settling back to watch a movie whilst enjoying the subtle cabin ambience, soft mood lighting and spacious interior.
Perhaps befitting for the French flag carrier, the airline has long held a reputation for excellent dining and fine wines onboard. Normally at this stage in the flight, passengers would be drooling in anticipation of the day’s culinary delights.
No flight is ever complete without a nice film. AF released a short video, showcasing the aircraft through the years. Just before the departure of AF380.
Barely an hour after departure the aircraft was cruising at 420 knots ground speed, reaching the Mediterranean sea. Deviating from the planned route, flight AF380 turned to the west, flying a loop before heading back east.
The inflight trivia question today is: Which registration was allocated to an A380 but never taken up?
As the journey continued eastbound, those on the left-hand side of the aircraft enjoyed stunning views of the oil refineries in Marseille; those seated on the right, the beautiful azure blue waters of the Mediterranean sea.
At 17:25L the aircraft turns north heading back home for the final time.
Around 50 minutes from home, the aircraft passes over Grenoble and Lyon, looking towards the French Alps and Switzerland an awe-inspiring sight. That will no doubt be an emotional remainder of this sad day.
Two hours after departure at 17:50 local time, the giant aircraft starts her descent into Paris for the last time.
Those on board will no doubt have pondered their part of this terrible yet historic moment. Let us ponder too with the final trivia question of tonight.
What was the first A380 route for Air France? For a bonus point, which routes were the first to be served simultaneously by AF A380 aircraft?
As the aircraft approached the town of Troyes AF380 was just twenty minutes from home. Beginning the descent into Paris, there is sad irony the aircraft was followed by two fine aircraft of the modern era.
Big Bird was to follow a much smaller stablemate of the airbus family, an A320 operating a domestic shuttle flight from Toulouse, down to runway 26L.
Toulouse is the home of Airbus, which is why it came as something of a shock that the scenic flight did not take a route towards her birthplace or to Hamburg Finkenwerder.
2 hours, minutes 23 after takeoff, Juliet Hotel touched down one final time, the local time being precisely 18:19.
It is a sad truth of the modern-day world that the market for four-engine airliners is now no more than a very small slice of a large pie. Today’s consumers do not want to change aircraft in a major hub.
The modern consumer wants convenience, simplicity and above all the cheapest fair possible. For airlines this means smaller aircraft, directing routing and cutting costs at every turn possible.
The events of the past two hours have shown every aircraft has its day, and for the Airbus A380, the curtains have closed. For the Boeing 787, A350, and other efficient modern aircraft, however, the future is bright.
There can be no doubt the A380 is a truly amazing aircraft; it is just a shame she came to pass a decade too late.