Airlines Resurrect Ancient Jumbo Jets To Meet First- And Business-Class Demand
The fuel-inefficient 747 and A380 are being resurrected, thanks to their large numbers of premium seats.
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- As global air travel comes roaring back from its pandemic-induced slump, airlines are racing to provide enough capacity, particularly for premium tickets on the long-haul flights enjoying a stronger-than-expected rebound.
The surge has created a surprise bottleneck for some carriers, which are finding that many of their new-generation aircraft outfitted with enough business and first-class berths are either late for delivery or still awaiting regulatory approval. So carriers have been forced to revive a venerable plane model that looked consigned to the scrap heap even before the Covid‑19 outbreak: the four-engine dinosaur.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG plans to bring back five more of its Airbus SE A340 jets—some almost two decades old—to offer first-class seating ahead of the peak summer season. Thai Airways International Pcl, which in 2021 said it planned to phase out all its A380 double-deckers along with its Boeing Co. 747 jumbos, is mulling a return of the A380 in 2024. Qantas Airways, Etihad Airways, Korean Air Lines and Singapore Airlines, which grounded their A380s during the virus outbreak, have also brought them back.
“Airlines used the pandemic to phase out large, four-engine jets on the expectation that new aircraft deliveries would replace that capacity with smaller and more nimble planes suitable for point to point services,” says Anne Correa, senior vice president for forecasting and modeling at MBA Aviation. “With demand rebounding stronger than expected and new plane deliveries delayed, airlines have been forced to bring back previously retired or decommissioned aircraft.”
Four-engine planes long dominated the world’s intercontinental flight paths, capable of taking more direct routes over oceans or mountain ranges that proved too long for their smaller siblings. Newer generations of twin-engine widebodies, principally the Boeing 777 and later the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus’s A350, can manage the same flight paths while burning less fuel and, because they are easier to maintain and hold fewer seats, turning around more quickly at smaller airports.
At the height of the pandemic, Qantas parked its dozen A380 double-deckers in the California desert, saying they wouldn’t be needed for at least three years. Now it’s bringing back most of them, with six already in service. Dubai’s Emirates is refreshing 67 older A380s with new interiors and premium economy sections.
Lufthansa found its current fleet lacked one piece of furniture in sufficient numbers: the lucrative first-class berths that can sell for more than $7,000 and have enjoyed rising demand from affluent passengers. The to-be-resurrected A340-600’s 297 seats include eight in first, the same number as the A380.
Operating the largest jets also allows carriers to add capacity without increasing frequencies, a bonus for airlines struggling to replenish their ranks after laying off thousands of workers during the pandemic. And loading up the front of the aircraft is more lucrative than relying on coach travelers, many of whom are upgrading to enjoy the perks of premium travel, from speedy boarding to a glass of Champagne.
American Express Global Business Travel says a growing number of leisure travelers shifting into business class has raised fares on some routes, especially major trans-Atlantic trips such as New York to Paris or New York to London. “As we look into 2023, particularly on routes where there is a strong leisure component, we can expect to continue to see some of that until the point of time that capacity really catches up with demand,” says Jeremy Quek, principal global air practice consultant at Amex GBT.
With more travelers pushing into the front of the aircraft, airlines are feeling the pinch from delayed deliveries. Lufthansa particularly has a shortage of widebody capacity. It has ordered 20 next-generation Boeing 777X jets designed to replace the hump-backed 747, but that model has slipped five years behind schedule, with deliveries postponed to 2025. Availability of other widebody jets for long-haul routes is also constrained, as Boeing recovers from a lengthy halt in deliveries for its 787 Dreamliner while flaws were addressed.
Still, for fans of the majestic four-engine aircraft hoping to see a permanent revival of the planes, this year might bring only a short burst of joy. The models are all essentially out of production, and even before the pandemic, they’d dwindled to 11% of a global fleet of about 4,500 widebody airliners. By the end of last year, the proportion had shrunk to just 6%, according to data by aviation analytics firm Cirium. —
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