Waking sleeping giants: How Etihad Airways revived its A380s – from storage to the skies

Abu Dhabi airline has hired more than 400 people for superjumbo's return to service this week after three years

Etihad Airways brings A380s out of storage after three-year grounding

Etihad Airways brings A380s out of storage after three-year grounding
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Etihad Airways recruited more than 400 people, including pilots, cabin crew, technicians and engineers to return four of its 10 Airbus A380s to service after a three-year pandemic-induced grounding, as the airline seeks to meet surging travel demand.

The first of the four aircraft returns to the skies on Tuesday on the Abu Dhabi to London route.

The technical, engineering and training feat is a global undertaking spanning storage facilities in Europe, hangars in China and maintenance checks at its engineering workshops in Abu Dhabi, its executives say.

The return of the four-engine superjumbos included about 70 days of detailed maintenance checks and an eight-month pilot training programme.

The National spoke to Etihad Airways' team of technical, engineering and flight operation experts for a look at what it takes to restore the mammoth aircraft from storage to the skies.

Why is the A380's return to service significant?

Etihad Airways joins airlines including Lufthansa, Qantas Airways, Korean Air Lines, Singapore Airlines and others in returning Airbus A380s to service after mothballing the aircraft at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020.

The return of the giant plane is a response to soaring international travel demand, strained capacity and long backlogs at aircraft manufacturers for new planes, technical project manager Olaf Ploog told The National.

How does it affect the route network?

Reintroducing the A380s, which each have 486 seats, to the Abu Dhabi to London route allows the airline to use its Boeing 787 jets elsewhere and increase flight frequencies, an Etihad representative said.

The airline in summer launched a flight to Lisbon for the first time. In the fourth quarter, it will start flights to Copenhagen and Osaka and also return to Düsseldorf. It also increased flight frequencies to destinations including Mumbai, Bangkok, Jakarta and Frankfurt.

What is the timeline for returning all the A380s to service?

Etihad Airways' first A380 (registration A6-APG) will fly commercially on Tuesday and the second A380 (registration A6-API) will fly on August 1, Mr Ploog said.

Aircraft A6-APH, which is in Abu Dhabi undergoing heavy maintenance checks, will enter into service on November 1. Aircraft A6-APJ, which is now in China for a nose-to-tail repair, will also resume flights on November 1.

All four A380s will be used on the popular Abu Dhabi-London route, although that plan may be “revisited over time”, Mr Ploog said.

How are the superjumbos prepared for a return to flight?

The airline's A380s were taken out of storage from facilities in France and Spain for heavy maintenance checks in Xiamen, China and in Abu Dhabi, Mr Ploog said.

How long do the preparations take?

Returning just one grounded A380 superjumbo back into the air requires 70 days of work in the aircraft hangar, Mr Ploog said. Once it comes out of the hangar, engine runs are performed and checks are done on the in-flight entertainment systems, cabins, galley cooling and beverage makers.

Training A380 pilots required eight months, Capt Mohamed Anwahi, acting vice president of flight operations, told The National.

This involved training on A380 simulators at Etihad's facilities in Abu Dhabi.

How many people are required to ensure the A380's smooth return to the skies?

More than 400 people were recruited, including pilots, cabin crew, technicians and engineers, to bring back all four A380s into service, Mr Ploog said.

Some 54 pilots and 300 cabin crew were trained to operate the A380s, Capt Anwahi added.

How did Etihad Airways recruit and train pilots amid a global aviation labour shortage?

When the pandemic hit the industry in 2020, Etihad Airways, like other airlines, had to cut jobs or furlough staff as travel came to a standstill. Its A380 pilots were either put on the Airbus A320 narrow-bodies or furloughed so that they could be recalled once demand recovered, Capt Anwahi said. This made sourcing A380 pilots an easier task amid the current overall industry labour crunch, he added.

How did supply chain issues impact the return to service?

Supply chain issues are hampering the global aviation industry's recovery amid rising costs, parts shortages and scarcity of some raw materials.

Mr Ploog said that supply chain disruptions led to “long lead times” when sourcing certain spare parts.

The first A380 aircraft flight was planned for July 15 but was delayed by 10 days due to delays in finding the required parts, he said.

Updated: July 24, 2023, 5:25 PM