Emirates CEO: the A380 is over

Sir Tim Clarke

Nobody was more convinced by the A380 than Sir Tim Clarke, the British CEO of the worlds largest A380 operator, Emirates.

Emirates operate more A380’s than the rest of the world combined, and are still due to accept delivery of the last ones in early 2021.

And yet, it’s greatest proponent is accepting the fact it’s days are already over.

There is often in history, a moment when the person most responsible for believing in something, and who spends a part of their life going out and persuading others of it, defending it, turns round and says, “this was once great, now it isn’t”. When they say it, well that’s it, it’s over, it’s dead and we need to listen. There are always those who won’t.

Admiral Fisher saw the first launch of an aircraft from the top of HMS Africa’s gun turret in 1912, and told everyone the dreadnought battleship – that just 7 years before he had helped create and transform, was doomed. He quickly became a pro-aircraft carrier enthusiast, not that many agreed with him. He was right but it took another thirty years to convince everyone.

HMS Africa launches the first aircraft from a ship in 1912, the start of a revolution few had the imagination or interest in seeing happen

This time, nobody really needs convincing. The shock is more the fact that the soon to retire Clarke said it and meant it.

What’s convinced him is the current pandemic. Prior to this he saw the A380 retiring slowly, gracefully, and leaving Emirates inventories by around 2035.

Not any more. If you read between the lines and if he was staying on long enough to oversee it, I suspect the whole lot would be scrap before 2031, indeed the implication was that in an ideal world he’d swap them one for one with a mix of 777-9’s and A350’s, along with more 787’s and A339’s as fast as he could.

The airline had already accepted its two type of aircraft approach wasn’t ideal and had placed orders to change that situation. Now Emirates needs to be at the front of a wave of fleet transformations, a more measured, flexible approach than the pre-Covid19 ‘one size fits all’ idea.

Clarke admitted the whole airline world has gone through a completely devastating black swan event. (Once black swans were presumed to be myth and that they didn’t exist, so when discovered they were a shock and surprise to everyone). He knows it will be three years before a changed industry crawls back. But as with any leader of such experience, age and time provide one with wisdom. It is what it is, airlines just have to be practical about it and keep their heads.

Clarke also said that he doubts many of the smaller airlines, even those with state aid, will survive long term. He feels state aid has been essential – and right – in preserving the industry. His estimate was that without it some 85% of the worlds airlines would have failed and never come back, their margins and costs were so tight.

And let’s stop to think about the A380 for a moment. AirFrance is retiring 10, Lufthansa has permanently grounded at least 6 and may never put the other 8 back into service.

Qantas is reviewing its A380 fleet, Qatar has set a date for retiring its 10 by 2024, Malaysia wants rid of its 6, Thai is in limbo over what to do with their 6, as is Korean with their 10. BA have grounded all 12 but seem unlikely to ditch them because of their hub model, but say they are included in their fleet review. The oldest is already 7.

Only Etihad and Singapore seem happy long term, with Asiana also dubious as to their own A380 futures. Rumour has it that even HiFly are wondering what to do with theirs now the market has vanished.

Yes, fifteen years after it first flew, the A380 is dead, but this time we can see it and we understand why.

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