Another Lifeline for the A380: Fresh British Airways Order Imminent

Airbus’ grand double-decker plan – in the form of the A380 – never really gained traction as the manufacturer hoped it would. Crucially, it was Boeing who judged the mood of the aviation industry more accurately, with its decision to focus on a mid-size, long range, technologically advanced aircraft that could open ‘long and thin’ routes – tapping in to the increasing propensity to fly from local airports non-stop, rather than connecting via a major hub. Boeing withdrew from the ideological and prestige-driven race for the first double-decker aircraft, but Airbus pressed onwards. From a PR standpoint, the A380 with its luxurious apartments and glamorous feel has personified airlines such as Emirates and Etihad. But, this doesn’t translate into versatility or profitability for the airline company. In fact, Reuters even reported that the A380 programme was on the verge of extinction in December:

“If there is no Emirates deal, Airbus will start the process of ending A380 production,” a person briefed on the plans said. A supplier added such a move was logical due to weak demand.

Luckily for A380 enthusiasts, Emirates signed a memorandum of understanding to acquire up to 36 additional Airbus A380 aircraft. The airline has committed to purchasing an additional 20 Airbus A380s, and has an option for 16 more, with deliveries to start in 2020. John Leahy, Airbus’ COO, said that the order ‘underscores Airbus’ commitment to produce the A380 at least for another ten years’.

Emirates A380 leaving London Gatwick.

In addition to this, last Friday, John Leahy suggested another A380 order would come soon. The industry is never usually this specific, when in open conversation with the media, but it looks like we may have a clearer idea about what this order might be.

British Airways is in talks with Airbus over an order for new Airbus A380 aircraft, according to Bloomberg.

Airbus SE is in talks to sell new A380 superjumbo planes to British Airways this year after securing a program-saving deal from Persian Gulf operator Emirates, according to people familiar with the matter.

The U.K. carrier, which currently has 12 A380s in its fleet, had said in the past that it was looking for six to seven second-hand A380s. Now it’s considering taking a larger number of new ones, said the people, who asked not to be named because the discussions are private.

BA currently operates A380s to destinations such as Johannesburg, Los Angeles & Vancouver. 

IAG has previously indicated they might be interested in purchasing second-hand A380s from airlines like Singapore Airlines (who began to retire their oldest models in 2017). These aircraft are heavier and perform less well than newer examples of the A380, and would also be costly and time-consuming to reconfigure. When all of this is weighed up, it may make more sense for British Airways to simply buy new aircraft directly.

In my opinion, the A380 was designed for airlines like British Airways – with an almost exclusive ‘hub and spoke’ model at a slot constricted airport like London Heathrow. There is clearly a benefit to eliminating two Boeing 777 flights and replacing it with just one A380 frequency. However, with corporate contracts from the city of London in the hands of British Airways, frequency is key – BA have even held back from rostering the A380 on the London-New York route, instead favouring additional timing options for business travellers. British Airways can also control the majority of the market in London Heathrow, meaning they could increase prices with less capacity on a route. So, although further pursuing the A380 may be of benefit to British Airways, perhaps Airbus didn’t weigh up the other factors of running a route dominated by business passengers.

Is the A380 really the best option for British Airways at Heathrow?

Willie Walsh has also indicated that any new A380s could be devolved to other IAG airlines, like Aer Lingus or Iberia. Dublin Airport is currently without commercial A380 operation and, quite frankly, I don’t see a trunk route with enough demand from the Irish capital. Iberia, on the other hand, could use A380s on routes to Latin America – replacing multiple frequencies on routes where sheer capacity matters more than flexibility.

Time will tell whether any new A380 orders from the International Airlines Group materialise but if and when they do, it will be interesting to see how British Airways deploy the new equipment and whether the group sees some use within Iberia or Aer Lingus.