Air France bids farewell to Airbus A380 fleet

An Air France Airbus A380 at Los Angeles Airport. Photo: © Gerrit Steiner

French flag-carrier Air France has officially retired its last Airbus A380, the largest passenger aircraft type ever built, on Friday evening.

The airline performed a final farewell flight with F-HPJH, an A380 delivered to Air France just eight years ago in May 2012. On board the special flight were about 500 employees of the carrier that were working on the aircraft. It flew across France and back to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, spending about two hours and 20 minutes in the air.

Air France Chief Executive Officer Anne Rigail has thanked pilots, mechanics, flight attendants, ground handlers and other workers who made the A380 fly. On Twitter she says the type has carried 18 million passengers at the airline.

Short history of the A380

The Airbus A380, often called the ‘Superjumbo’, was ordered by Air France back in 2001. It was finally introduced at the airline on 29th October 2009, when it received its very first aircraft of the type. Although three airlines, namely Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qantas, introduced their first A380 before Air France, the French flag-carrier did become the European launch customer.

When Air France made the decision to establish a fleet of Superjumbos, it placed an order for ten, with options for four more. In 2007, the airline firmed up two of the options, bringing its total orders to twelve. However, only ten A380 were ever delivered to Air France, as it decided to cancel two outstanding orders in 2017.

Then, in November 2018, new Air France-KLM CEO Benjamin Smith made the decision to discontinue half of its A380 fleet by not extending the leases for five aircraft. At the time it was said that while half will leave the airline, the remaining five would undergo cabin modernisation and continue to fly. This plan was short-lived, as Air France announced in August 2019 that it will retire all of its A380 by 2022. The first aircraft left the fleet few months later in November 2019.

F-HPJB, the first Airbus A380 that left Air France in 2019. Photo: © BriYYZ

Coronavirus crisis pulls the plug on the A380

Now, with the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, airlines are battling with low demand and travel restrictions around the world in what has become the biggest crisis in aviation history. This has led to many early-retirements, specifically of older, less efficient and simply too large aircraft types.

While the Airbus A380 is not particularly old for aviation standards (it’s not uncommon for long-haul airplanes to operate for 20-30 years before being retired), it does fit into the categories too large and less efficient, with the latter usually being blamed on its four engines.

Air France is now becoming the first airline to retire the aircraft amid the Coronavirus pandemic – and at the same time the first airline to retire its entire lineup of A380. Although pre-crisis plans stated 2022 as a retirement date, Air France withdrew the aircraft from regular service in May this year, as it simply doesn’t make sense for the carrier to continue flying with virtually no passengers on board.

It is not unlikely that some of the other 14 operators of the aircraft type will follow suit, as many have been considering reducing or completely discontinuing their A380 fleets. Right now, it’s unclear who is still considering the type as part of their operations, as all airlines have currently grounded either most or all of their A380 as companies wait for the pandemic to pass. Lufthansa has already confirmed that it will retire six out of 14 Airbus A380, along with some Boeing 747-400 – another aircraft type that has been hit hard by the economic impact of Coronavirus.