Ten years ago this week, Qantas became the third airline to take delivery of the Airbus A380. In recognition of this milestone, Australian Aviation takes a look back at the history of the world’s largest passenger aircraft in Qantas colours and contemplates its future with the Flying Kangaroo.
When Qantas’s first A380 was officially handed over at the Henri Ziegler Delivery Centre within Airbus’s Toulouse headquarters on September 19 2008, the evening began with the words “tonight the new world meets the old world”.
It seemed an apt description, with Qantas in its ninth decade of continuous operations and the A380 entering service less than a year earlier.
VIDEO: Some scenes from the official delivery ceremony at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse from Qantas’s YouTube channel.
The Australian flag carrier was the third airline to take delivery of the world’s largest passenger aircraft behind launch customer Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Emirates Airline in October 2007 and July 2008, respectively.
And it took the opportunity of introducing a new type to unveil a suite of new cabin products, a new cabin crew uniform and, as then Qantas executive general manager John Borghetti described in the foreword to Design in Flight: Making the Qantas A380, a new era of innovation.
“This commemorative book is the chronicle of a unique collaboration to propel Qantas, again, to the forefront of global travel,” Borghetti’s foreword said.
“It tells how Qantas commissioned one of the world’s most renowned industrial designers, Marc Newson, to create the world’s most comfortable and stylish interiors in the world’s new generation passenger aircraft, the A380.
“It’s a story of high technology and brilliant design. A story of innovation and excellence.
“Most of all, it’s a story of passion – the passion to create a new standard of comfort, enjoyment and style for our passengers.
“We believe we have created something very special in the best traditions of the Spirit of Australia. Now we invite you to enjoy it.”
(Borghetti left Qantas in 2009 and joined Virgin Australia as its chief executive a year later.)
VIDEO: A look at the design, delivery and arrival of Qantas’s first Airbus A380, again from the airline’s YouTube channel.
Qantas’s first A380, VH-OQA Nancy-Bird Walton took off from Toulouse in the early hours of September 20 2008 and after a technical stop at Singapore Changi, landed in Sydney on the morning of September 21 2008.
Between September 2008 and December 2011 the flagship VH-OQA was joined by 11 more of the type.
The first long-haul service with Nancy-Bird Walton was Melbourne-Los Angeles which kicked off on October 20 2008 and the network gradually expanded to include Sydney-Los Angeles, Sydney-Singapore-London and Melbourne-Singapore-London.
The A380 has also allowed Qantas to establish new nonstop routes such as Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth, replacing the Boeing 747-400ER which previously operated a Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth-Brisbane-Sydney rotation. For a time it was the longest nonstop airline flight in commercial aviation.
And Qantas has also in recent times deployed the A380 to Hong Kong, adding extra capacity during peak travel periods such as Chinese New Year and school holidays.
VIDEO: A promotional video explaining the use of the Airbus A380 between Sydney and Dallas/Fort Worth, as shown on Qantas’s YouTube channel.
QF32 rocks Qantas and the A380
That Qantas’s first A380 is still flying today is in no small part due to the skill and experience of pilots Richard de Crespigny, David Evans, Mark Johnson, Matt Hicks and Harry Wubben on board QF32 that took off from Singapore bound for Sydney on November 4 2010.
On that day, the number two Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine suffered an uncontained explosive failure shortly after takeoff which damaged the wing, parts of the fuselage and rendered a number of systems components inoperable.
To the relief of everyone on board and those following around the world, the aircraft landed safely back at Changi Airport.
The incident led to Qantas grounding its entire fleet of A380s while it sought assurances from Airbus and Rolls-Royce the type was safe to operate.
The aircraft spent more than a year undergoing repairs in Singapore before Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, senior executives and some members of the original flightcrew and cabin crew that day, as well as invited media, brought VH-OQA back to Sydney in April 2012 to “complete” its mission so suddenly interrupted in November 2010.
“The aircraft was challenged in an incident that is not part of the certification requirement,” Qantas Captain Richard de Crespigny explained to Australian Aviation in April 2012.
“It was extensively damaged, we were operating outside the protected environment provided by certification standards, and we were on our own.
“Once you understand the severity of the incident, you can only come out with the greatest pride for the A380. It was over-engineered like the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The 380 has been over-engineered beyond the certification requirements, and that’s why when we got challenged with a ‘black swan event’, it didn’t just survive, it flew beautifully and 469 souls returned safely home.”
Initial plans had Qantas potentially operating up to 30 A380s. However, the firm order book eventually stood at 20 aircraft.
Only 12 have been delivered, with VH-OQL Phyllis Arnott the last to join the fleet December 2011.
While those eight remaining A380s are still listed as “on order”, the thinking at Qantas’s Mascot headquarters for some time has been that they will not be taken.
Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said in December 2016 said the A380 fleet would remain at 12.
“The 12 current aircraft we’re happy with and the eight that we have on order from Airbus we don’t see a need for them and we will keep pushing them out,” Joyce said at the time.
As the type enters its second decade in the fleet, Qantas is embarking on a “multi-million” dollar upgrade of its A380 cabin, which is due to begin in the first half of calendar 2019 and be completed before the end of 2020.
The mid-life refurbishment program, which is being managed by Airbus, includes replacing the SkyBed II business class and premium economy seats with a similar product to what appears on Qantas’ Boeing 787-9s and Airbus A330s, a new upstairs lounge area and an enhancement of its first class offering.
As Qantas usually operates aircraft for about 20 years, a decision on whether to replace older A380s with newer A380s – or some new generation aircraft such as Boeing’s 777-X, the Airbus A350-1000 or a yet-to-be built clean-sheet airframe – will not have to be made for quite some time.
For London Heathrow, so often thought of as a key destination for the A380 given the difficulty in obtaining takeoff and landing slots, Qantas’s Project Sunrise ambition of operating nonstop from Australia’s east coast might result in the downgauging of its current one-stop Sydney-Singapore-London Heathrow offering from the A380 to perhaps a 787-9 to avoid overcapacity.
And while Qantas remains the dominant carrier between Australia and the United States mainland, its network may change depending on market conditions and the fate of a proposed deeper alliance with American Airlines that is currently before the United States Department of Transportation.
For example, Qantas’s A380 flight on the Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth route may be too many seats should the airline introduce nonstop flights from Brisbane and Melbourne to the American Airlines hub with 787-9s.
In the meantime, it is expected that the A380s will be used on more Asian routes – perhaps Sydney-Hong Kong could sustain a year-round A380 service – to cater for the expected growth in demand out of the Asia Pacific region.
One of Qantas’s two daily Melbourne-Singapore services was upgraded to the A380 earlier in 2018. Should more A380 capacity become available, Brisbane-Singapore could be in line for a capacity boost too.
Time will tell.
Read more on the arrival of Nancy-Bird Walton
For this week’s Throwback Thursday Australian Aviation is reliving all the colour and movement associated with the arrival of VH-OQA into Australia.
Stories from the November 2008 edition of Australian Aviation magazine comprise: