Has the Airbus A380 finally found a second life?

Flying high: Global Airlines’ rendition of its Airbus A380 in service (Global Airlines)
Flying high: Global Airlines’ rendition of its Airbus A380 in service (Global Airlines)

For many passengers, the Airbus A380 double-deck “SuperJumbo” is the best way to fly. Yet only 251 have been built – one-sixth of the number of Boeing 747s – and production ended in 2021.

Yet with post-pandemic passenger demand relentlessly strong, as we make up for lost sunshine and adventures, the world’s airlines are chasing extra capacity. At the same time, some carriers – including Air France and Malaysia Airlines – have permanently retired their A380 fleets. (You can find a handful of these once-mighty planes at Lourdes airport in southwest France, Europe’s main aviation graveyard.)

You can pick up a well-cared-for secondhand SuperJumbo for a fraction of its original price. A smart way to proceed? Not according to airlines such as Emirates and British Airways. They have plenty of experience filling, flying and maintaining the A380, but they have chosen not to expand their fleets on the cheap.

So I was startled to see that a British start-up, Global Airlines, has actually bought a single secondhand A380. Until this week GA (as I guess it will be called) was a “paper airline,” long on promises but short on kit. Now it has picked up one of the earliest SuperJumbos to roll off the production line in Toulouse. The first careful owner was Singapore Airlines, which chose not to extend the lease beyond 10 years. A Portuguese airline, Hi-Fly, tried its luck for a couple of years but then the plane was parked at the European aircraft graveyard at Lourdes, while its owners, Doric Aviation, waited for a miracle.

Lo and behold, the travel gods have smiled on the 16-year-old jet.

GA’s chief executive and founder, James Asquith, said: “The purchase of our first aircraft demonstrates that we are well on the way to launching Global. The next step is to overhaul and refit the aircraft to our high specification, providing our customers with the best experience in the sky today.”

The airline’s initial routes are said to be from London Gatwick to New York and Los Angeles.

I call it Son of Skytrain. Laker Airways’ first UK-US routes were from Gatwick to JFK and LAX, in 1977. The Skytrain concept was the work of Sir Freddie Laker, seeking to democratise flying, using big planes to cut fares across the Atlantic. At the time, the incumbent airlines maintained a cosy, high-fare regime. Laker undermined that – and, within five years, had been forced out of business as rivals cut fares. Global Airlines, we are told, will “transport passengers back to the ‘Golden Age of Air Travel’”.

Sounds compelling? Well, I am all in favour of innovation in aviation, but to me it sounds curious. The total number of regular scheduled flights using the A380 on the world’s leading intercontinental air route, London Heathrow to New York JFK, is zero.

Before the Covid crisis, Norwegian chartered the very same A380 from Hi-Fly for Gatwick-JFK flights, with little success.

As Rhys Jones of the frequent-flyer website Head for Points says: “This is a route where frequency – multiple flights a day – is one of the most important factors to pick up lucrative business passengers, who want to travel at convenient times rather than be chained to a single daily flight.

“British Airways operates a total of 11 daily flights to New York airports across Heathrow and Gatwick, giving passengers a choice of departures.”

The same reason passengers love the A380 – for its vast size – is also the plane’s main drawback. It is a massive aircraft to park, fuel and fill. Selling the 471 seats that GA plans for its jets on a wet Wednesday in November will be a challenge, especially as the airline will not have the connecting traffic on which all the incumbent airlines depend.

Rhys Jones says: “Conventional wisdom actually suggests that going smaller – as JetBlue is doing with the A321LR aircraft – is the next big revolution in passenger aviation. With increasingly long legs, these aircraft can now operate transatlantic flights at a fraction of the cost of larger aircraft.”

I wish Global Airlines well, but I fear the operation will simply burn through tens of millions of investors’ funds without getting off the ground. I hope I am wrong.

Listen to Simon Calder’s latest podcast on the A380 here.