This article originally appeared in the November 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation.
In Toulouse, France on September 19 2008, as then Qantas chief executive Geoff Dixon took delivery of the carrier’s first Airbus A380 – some two years later than initially planned – there was no missing the euphoria in his voice. The jet symbolised a new era of travel for Qantas, he declared.
“No other airline has flown as far as Qantas for as long as Qantas, so we know very well the value of a well-designed inflight product for long-haul flights. The A380, with its extra space, new materials and advanced technology, has given us the ideal platform to reinvent the inflight experience.”
Dixon was about to step down as the airline’s chief, handing over to Alan Joyce in November that year, and the CEO-in-waiting was just as optimistic.
“Taking delivery of the first of our A380s is an important occasion for us. It is both a culmination – following years of meticulous design development – and a beginning, with the A380 leading us into a new chapter in the story of Qantas,” said Joyce.
That first A380 touched down in Sydney at 9am on September 21 to begin several weeks of proving flights and induction into the Qantas fleet. With its 450 seats in four cabins – 14 in first class, 72 in business class, 32 in premium economy and 332 in economy – everyone thought the A380 was a game-changer, as had been its high-capacity predecessor, the Boeing 747. That first A380, christened Nancy-Bird Walton, took off on its first commercial flight, from Melbourne to Los Angles, a month later on the morning of October 21.
As it headed out over the Pacific, no-one could have dreamed that almost exactly two years later the plane would be the centre of one of the most dramatic incidents in Qantas’s history, when A380 flight QF32, climbing out from Singapore on its way back to Sydney on November 4 2010, came within a knife edge of becoming one of the world’s worst air disasters.
What happened is now history. The plane suffered an uncontained engine failure when a turbine disc in the aircraft’s No 2 Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine (on the port side nearest the fuselage) disintegrated. In addition to destruction of the engine, this caused damage to the nacelle, wing, fuel system, landing gear, flight controls, and the controls for engine No 1, and a fire in the left inner wing fuel tank that self-extinguished.
The failure was determined to have been caused by the breaking of a stub oil pipe which had been manufactured improperly. With parts of the engine nacelle plunging to the ground on the Indonesian island of Batam, complete with the Qantas Flying Kangaroo symbol fully visible, initial reports suggested the aircraft had crashed.
What in fact was happening was that Captain Richard de Crespigny and his crew were methodically working through the dozens of error messages they were receiving, working out what was working and what wasn’t, to eventually guide the aircraft and its 433 passengers safely back to an emergency landing at Singapore’s Changi airport.
For Qantas, it was a heroic moment, a confirmation of its unparalleled safety record and the training of its flightcrews. It was also a moment of truth. Joyce immediately suspended all A380 operations, groundings that lasted for almost four weeks before the airline was satisfied it was safe to fly them again and Joyce, who was on the first resumed service from Sydney to Singapore, could comment that “we are 100 per cent comfortable with the operation of the aircraft”.
The QF32 incident threw the A380 and Rolls-Royce under heavy scrutiny. The engine maker in particular attracted flack as its public relations department went into hibernation, leaving an angry Airbus and Qantas to take the heat. For a time, the big plane became a big liability. In December, two months after the incident, Qantas filed a claim against Rolls-Royce in the Federal Court of Australia over the financial and commercial impact of the mid-air failure. Takeoff thrust limitations meant for flights to Los Angeles from Sydney the aircraft would be able to carry only 80 passengers, making the service utterly unviable.
Rolls was accused of negligence and breach of contract and Qantas said in its statement of claim the engine maker had continued to modify the Trent 900 engine but left 23 engines on its big jets dangerously unmodified. That legal action was finally settled in June 2011. Joyce said the terms of the agreement were confidential, but the settlement’s profit and loss impact would amount to a $95 million boost to the airline’s bottom line.
Some industry insiders also blamed Qantas’s heavy investment in the A380 for some of the airline’s financial problems at the time. The carrier’s financial health was ailing and the hit from the A380 incident didn’t help.
By the 2013/14 financial year Joyce was reporting a record loss of $2.84 billion, blaming weak demand in Australia, subdued consumer and business confidence and higher fuel prices. But observers suggested fleeting decisions had also had an impact. Qantas had ordered the A380, eschewing the Boeing 777‑300ER which became the successful mainstay of many of its competitors’ fleets.
It was estimated that if Qantas had bought the 777, it would have saved more than A$1 billion in fuel in 10 years. However, buying the 777 would have resulted in delaying the acquisition of A380 and 787 aircraft.
As the A380 engine issues were resolved and time passed there was another backstory to this revolutionary new jet. Despite the long delays in its production, Airbus had always sold the aircraft as a solution to mounting congestion at the world’s major hubs. Carrying more passengers in fewer planes would relieve the situation, it argued, and airlines would queue up to buy it. Initially, they did. But as the years went by it became obvious airlines had an opposite view. They wanted smaller, twin-engine long-haul jets such as the 787 Dreamliner and 777, the Airbus A330 and A350. Qantas soon reached the same conclusion. The A380 was certainly a flagship aircraft loved by its customers but it was expensive to buy and operate and couldn’t match the economics of the new breed of twin-aisles.
Qantas had been the first airline to sign a contract with Airbus for the A380, even though at the time it remained a paper aircraft. Back then, in 2000, it saw it as being the cornerstone of its fleet renewal program and crucial to its ability to compete with major rivals such as Singapore Airlines in offering the latest in air travel.
Ultimately ordering 20, it was scheduled to take delivery of three by the end of 2008, another eight by the end of 2009 and all 20 by the end of 2013. While it was the first to sign up for the aircraft, it was actually the third to take delivery, after Singapore Airlines and Emirates.
At the time of the initial delivery, Dixon said Qantas was in talks with Airbus to firm up orders for further A380s. “We can see real reasons for us to take more A380s to allow for some growth and to replace some aircraft. That’s our belief in how good this aircraft is. We said at the time that in addition to giving us the opportunity to reinvent our product, this revolutionary new aircraft offered capacity and operating savings, as well as environmental improvements.”
With Dixon gone and Joyce in charge, by 2016 this had changed. In August that year, speaking at a CAPA Australia Pacific Summit, Joyce declared the airline had no plans to buy any more A380s, including the eight superjumbos still listed on the order books at Airbus.
Qantas was “continually pushing those aircraft (deliveries) out, so our intention is that we’re not taking those aircraft . . . We have 12 aircraft and the 12 aircraft we have are fantastic aircraft and actually serve the missions we have… We believe there’s a network for 12: it’s very good and it works very well. We struggle with a network for the next eight, so that’s why we keep pushing them back,” he said.
What had become apparent to Qantas – and others who delayed or cancelled deliveries – was that while this was a great aircraft, it could only be operated economically on a handful of major trunk routes. Unlike Emirates and its fleet of more than 100 A380s, pulling in thousands of transit passengers through its Dubai hub to fill the big planes, Qantas was operating from end-of-the-line bases at Sydney and Melbourne, with no access to high volume transit customers.
Placing the A380 on most of the rest of its network was simply not viable.
VIDEO: A promotional video explaining the use of the Airbus A380 between Sydney and Dallas/Fort Worth, as shown on Qantas’s YouTube channel.
Today, Qantas’s A380 network comprises only six routes, from Sydney to Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Singapore and London, as well as Melbourne to Los Angeles and Singapore. Filling up an A380 elsewhere on its network would be a real challenge.
The aircraft is also becoming increasingly difficult to justify economically. The price of fuel is on the rise again and newer 787s and A350s are cheaper to buy and far more fuel efficient, while fulfilling airline requirements to operate more flights on direct point-to-point secondary routes, bypassing hubs where they can.
As Qantas celebrated 10 years of A380 operations it was a point underscored by aviation expert and managing director of Airline Intelligence & Research Dr Tony Weber – a former Qantas chief economist – in September when he said the aircraft is not cost-effective compared to a 787.
“You can fly two Boeing 787s between Sydney and Los Angeles with the same fuel consumption as the A380. Qantas has tried to justify its fuel consumption by saying its aircraft can allow more passengers on board. But the jet fuel price hovers above $80 to $90, so it just becomes uneconomic and unsustainable.”
That trend is apparent wherever you look. Apart from Emirates with its mega transit hub, no-one is ordering A380s. Indeed, the last two purchased were by Japan’s All Nippon Airways which is taking them to operate on a single route, the tourist-oriented, high-density service from Japan to Hawaii. There is universal recognition that if Emirates had not placed a new $16 billion order for 36 more A380s in January this year the production line would have been run down and the program ended.
Not that any of this means Qantas will be phasing out the A380 anytime soon. The airline announced last year a major A380 upgrade to improve passenger comfort on long-haul flights and tap the growing market for premium travel.
Structural changes are focused on the upper deck where 30 economy seats will be removed and some partitions and a crew workstation rearranged to use space more effectively. This will allow for an additional six business class and 25 premium economy seats, increasing the overall seat count on the aircraft by one and increasing premium seating by 27 per cent.
New premium economy seating will be in a 2-3-2 configuration. This seat is almost 10 per cent wider than the model it replaces and debuted on the Qantas 787 last year.
The front end of the A380’s upper deck will also be reconfigured to redesign the passenger lounge to provide more room for first and business class customers to dine and relax. First class will be enhanced, although it remains in its current configuration on the lower deck.
Work on the first A380 is expected to begin in the second quarter of next year and all 12 aircraft will be upgraded by the end of 2020.
“Customers love the A380,” said Joyce.
“This upgrade is a major investment in putting the next generation of seats on the aircraft as well as more creature comforts to maintain its status as one of the best ways to fly. We’re seeing increased demand for premium economy and business class on the long-haul routes that the A380 operates, including from people using their Qantas points to upgrade,” he added.
“When you combine this upgrade with the other investments we’ve been making in new aircraft and new cabins, it will give us consistency with our premium seats across the A380, A330 and incoming B787 Dreamliner.”
But while the flagship A380 has become a fixture in the history of an iconic airline, one thing is certain. It will never reach the impact of the 747 but it will remain an integral part of the fleet for many years to come.
VIDEO – Airbus celebrated the handover of the first Qantas A380 with this remarkable sound and light show.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 magazine edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, subscribe here.