During the Covid-19 pandemic, videos emerged of lone passengers travelling on the Airbus A380, an aircraft that has a maximum capacity of 853 travellers. It is the largest passenger plane ever built.
While that might have been a remarkable privilege for those lucky enough to be on board, it pointed to the adverse impact that the pandemic had on aviation – one that many in the industry thought would take years, even decades, to recover from.
And for A380 enthusiasts, the results were even sadder. Despite its unrivalled passenger comfort and the huge status it brought airlines, the economics of running such a giant were untenable.
That did not quash their hopes. In a video released less than a year ago and now with 1.2 million views, aviation YouTuber Sam Chui asked then chief executive of Etihad Airways Tony Douglas whether the airline’s A380 be making a return. “I’d never say never … but at the moment I’ve got to be direct. I can’t imagine that would be any time soon,” he responded.
It is, therefore, remarkable that less than a year after those comments were made, Etihad has announced that it will reintroduce its A380 fleet to help meet a surge in demand. The airline expects to return four to the fleet in the summer of 2023.
It means that the company’s remarkable products that have been on hold since the shelving of the aircraft are now back on the market, none more famous than its Residence suite, made up of three separate spaces, a living room, bathroom and bedroom.
In a similar vein, Dubai carrier Emirates announced on Thursday that it plans to return its full A380 fleet into service by the end of 2023, as it increases operations to meet stronger-than-expected demand. Emirates has the largest number of the aircraft globally, and never stopped using the plane, albeit it to a limited degree, throughout the worst of the pandemic. But fears of a long recovery period are now greatly assuaged. The airline’s capacity has recovered to 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with plans for full recovery by end of next year, according to Adnan Kazim, Emirates' chief commercial officer.
Further afield, Australian airline Qantas is set to operate its sixth A380, and British Airways will have more A380 flights by the end of the year than it did before Covid-19.
This a welcome development for the UAE’s economy, which has for decades been boosted both in terms of soft and hard financial power by its vitally important aviation sector.
What is even more welcome is that these decisions could actually help boost environmental targets set by airlines such as Etihad. If flights happen at full capacity, the A380 is an efficient way to move many people at one time.
Mr Chui asked his question at an event to launch Etihad’s new A350-1000, billed as one of the most sustainable aircraft ever made. A rebounding aviation sector, now propped up by the likes of the A380, will pave the way for airlines to invest more in reaching their climate targets. Etihad aims to create net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
The return of the A380 represents some of the best news for aviation in years. Gone are the days when these workhorses of the skies carried so few passengers as the world shut down under the grip of Covid-19. Now, millions more will get to enjoy the pleasure of flying as we once did.