Air France is retiring the A380. Here’s why we won’t miss it

May 20, 2020

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The coronavirus has produced the first retirement of an airline’s entire A380 fleet. With a statement, Air France announced on Wednesday the immediate end of its operations with the biggest passenger plane in the world.

“In the context of the current COVID-19 crisis and its impact on anticipated activity levels, the Air France-KLM Group announces today the definitive end of Air France Airbus A380 operations”, it says. That means the nine A380s wearing Air France colours will never fly again in scheduled passenger service. The Boeing 777 becomes then the new largest jet in Air France’s fleet.

Benjamin Smith, CEO of the Air France-KLM group, already was no friend of the superjumbo, deeming it too large and inefficient, and had planned its retirement for 2022. Now the global traffic slump has accelerated the plan.

“The phase-out of Airbus A380 fleet fits in the Air France-KLM Group fleet simplification strategy of making the fleet more competitive, by continuing its transformation with more modern, high-performance aircraft with a significantly reduced environmental footprint”, the statement says. In an environment where demand is so low, the 500-plus seats of the double-decker are a liability. Smaller Airbus A350s and Boeing 787s will take its place.

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Unlike Smith, here at TPG we love the A380 — because all that space on the plane means great passenger amenities. Or at least it does for airlines that are not Air France. And that’s why we are not going to miss those A380s; they just offer a subpar passenger experience. In a 2018 review of economy class aboard the big French bird, TPG’s Community and Audience Producer Wallace Cotton summed up the problem perfectly: “Just about every airline that flies the jet puts its nicest cabin configuration on these planes”, he wrote. “Air France, however, is one of the few that don’t”.

Granted, Wallace was flying in the lowest of four separate classes available on the Air France plane. But things did not improve much in the higher classes of service. One notch up in Premium Economy, our Executive Editorial Director Scott Mayerowitz was equally unimpressed. The list of negatives at the top of his 2019 review includes “terrible seat, dated entertainment screen, no Wi-Fi”. What about business class? Reviews editor Nick Ellis did not have much kinder words for it. “A terribly outdated hard product with angle-flat seats,” was his assessment.

Surely things would be great in first class. Air France’s famed La Première is, after all, the current holder of the TPG Award for best long-haul first. But that’s the version of La Première installed on the Boeing 777-300ER, where it’s a hyper-exclusive, four-seat cabin that just exudes class and offers one of the most private seats in the sky. On the A380, instead, you get open seats. Even The Points Guy in person is not a fan. I don’t think [first class] on the A380 lives up to the exclusivity of the price tag and miles redemption that comes with it”, Brian Kelly wrote in his 2016 review. “If you have the choice, I’d recommend going with the 777 instead of the A380 — it’s much more private and comfortable”.

Air France A380 Business Class
Business class on the Air France A380 (Photo by Nicholas Ellis / The Points Guy)

Grounding the giants forever will cost Air France a cool half billion euros in write-downs on this year’s balance sheet. “The global impact of the Airbus A380 phase-out write down is estimated at 500 million euros and will be booked in the second quarter of 2020 as a non-current cost/expenses”, the airline said. The nine jets are grounded mostly in Paris, with some in Tarbes, France, and Teruel, Spain.

That’s a sad fate for a fleet of aeroplanes that are still very young. The oldest of Air France’s A380s was delivered in 2009, and the youngest in 2014, according to fleet-tracking site Planespotters, making them airframes with a lot of useful life left. The fleet originally numbered 10, but one had been retired already as part of Smith’s plan to shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient jets.

The demise of the French fleet of A380 is also a hit to the prestige of Airbus, which makes (not for much longer) the planes in Toulouse, France. Airbus is a European company, but it’s perceived by many in France as a vehicle of national prestige. A 1996 French university textbook curated by noted historian René Souriac illuminates the concept by lumping in Airbus with the Ariane rocket and the TGV high-speed train as things that make France feel it is “part of the group of great industrial nations”.

For a sense of the prestige, the French flag carrier used to attach to the A380, look no further than this poster in its lounge at the Boston airport. Unfortunately, Air France’s flagship never got an onboard product reflecting its status.

(Photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy)

Things are not much brighter for the other major A380 operator in the European Union, Lufthansa (incidentally based in the other major partner nation in Airbus, Germany.) Its 14 A380s are currently all grounded, and when the crisis is over, only seven will return to service, the German aviation news site revealed on Wednesday. A Lufthansa source told the site that the seven planes will all be based in Munich and that A380 operations at the airline’s main hub in Frankfurt will end, since dividing the A380s between two airports is unviable “logistically and economically.”

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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