Qantas cancels outstanding order for eight A380s

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Qantas Airbus A380 VH-OQA rotates from Sydney Airport. (Rob Finlayson)

Qantas says it has cancelled its outstanding order for eight A380s after discussions with Airbus.

The eight aircraft were part of an order for 20 A380s made in 2006.

“Following discussions with Airbus, Qantas has now formalised its decision not to take eight additional A380s that were ordered in 2006,” Qantas said in a statement on Thursday.

“These aircraft have not been part of the airline’s fleet and network plans for some time.”

The change was expected to be reflected in the Airbus Orders and Deliveries summary for January 2019.

There have been 321 total orders for the A380 since it was launched in the early 2000s, according to the Airbus website. At December 31 2019, 234 of the type had been delivered, leaving the backlog standing at 87 aircraft.

The Australian flag carrier was the third airline to take delivery of the world’s largest passenger aircraft behind launch customer Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Emirates Airline in October 2007 and July 2008, respectively.

Qantas’s first A380, VH-OQA Nancy-Bird Walton arrived in Sydney on September 21 2008. Eleven more followed in the next three and a bit years, with the 12th A380, VH-OQL Phyllis Arnott, delivered in December 2011.

A file image of Qantas Airbus A380 VH-OQL Phyllis Arnott. (Seth Jaworski)

The first long-haul service with Nancy-Bird Walton was Melbourne-Los Angeles which kicked off on October 20 2008 and the network gradually expanded to include Sydney-Los Angeles, Sydney-Singapore-London and Melbourne-Singapore-London.

The A380 has also allowed Qantas to establish new nonstop routes such as Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth, replacing the Boeing 747-400ER which previously operated a Sydney-Dallas/Fort Worth-Brisbane-Sydney rotation. For a time it was the longest nonstop airline flight in commercial aviation.

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VIDEO: A promotional video explaining the use of the Airbus A380 between Sydney and Dallas/Fort Worth, as shown on Qantas’s YouTube channel.

And Qantas has also in recent times deployed the A380 to Hong Kong, adding extra capacity during peak travel periods such as Chinese New Year and school holidays.

Initial plans had Qantas potentially operating up to 30 A380s. However, the firm order book eventually stood at 20 aircraft.

While those eight remaining A380s remained listed as “on order” for many years, the thinking at Qantas’s Mascot headquarters has been that they would never be taken.

Although the order for eight new aircraft has been now formally cancelled, Qantas is continuing to invest in the A380 fleet.

Now in its second decade flying in Qantas colours, the airline is conducting what it describes as a multi-million dollar upgrade of the aircraft’s interiors.

The mid-life refurbishment program, which is being managed by Airbus, includes replacing the SkyBed II business class and premium economy seats with a similar product to what appears on Qantas’ Boeing 787-9s and Airbus A330s, a new upstairs lounge area and an enhancement of its first class offering.

The work was due to get underway by the middle of calendar 2019 and be completed before the end of 2020.

“Qantas remains committed to a major upgrade of its existing A380s, which begins in mid-calendar 2019 and will see us operate the aircraft well into the future,” Qantas said.

As Qantas usually operates aircraft for about 20 years, a decision on what aircraft will eventually replace the A380 in the fleet will not have to be made for quite some time.

The airline’s evaluation of how many A380s it needs in the future is likely to be impacted by the prospect of being able to operate nonstop flights from Australia’s east coast to London Heathrow and New York with either the A350 or Boeing 777X that is currently being considered under Project Sunrise.

Meanwhile, Qantas said its Boeing 747 fleet would be reduced to nine by the end of February 2019 with one aircraft to be retired by the end of the month. The last 747 was scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2020, in time for the airline’s centenary celebrations.

In terms of outstanding orders, Qantas has six 787-9s due for delivery from the end of 2019 while its low-cost carrier arm Jetstar was expected to receive the first of 18 A321LRs (also known as the A321neoLR) from mid-2020.

A slide presentation from Qantas outlining potential routes for Project Sunrise. (Qantas)

A slide presentation from Qantas outlining potential routes for Project Sunrise. (Qantas)

Qantas the latest airline to formally cancel A380 order

The removal of Qantas’s eight A380s from the Airbus order book followed United Kingdom-based Virgin Atlantic formally cancelling its order for six of the type in March 2018.

Airbus also removed an order for 10 A380s that had previously been allocated to an undisclosed customer in its December summary.

There could be further changes to the order book after Airbus confirmed it had held talks with Emirates regarding the airline’s existing orders for A380 aircraft.

“Airbus SE confirms it is in discussions with Emirates Airline in relation to its A380 contract,” Airbus said in a statement after it was reported Emirates was considering changing its recent Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for 36 A380s that was signed in January 2018 to the Airbus’s A350.

“The details of Airbus’ commercial discussions with customers remain confidential.”

Emirates is the largest of the A380’s 14 operators by some margin, with 109 in the fleet and a further 53 on order at December 31, according to the Airbus orders and deliveries figures.

The next largest operator is Singapore Airlines (SIA), which has 19 A380s, followed by Lufthansa with 14. British Airways and Qantas are next with 12 each.

The A380, which is world’s largest passenger aircraft, has struggled for sales in recent times, with carriers preferring twin-engine variants to serve their long-haul routes.

In response to the weakness in the very large passenger aircraft market, Airbus has slowed the production rate of the A380 from 15 aircraft delivered in 2017 to 12 aircraft in 2018. The company has said previously it expected to deliver eight A380s in 2019.

Airbus has also sought to make the A380 more efficient and improve the aircraft’s operating economics through features such as new fuel saving winglets.

Packaged together and called A380plus, the initiatives included extending maintenance intervals, aerodynamic changes to the wing and previously announced “cabin enablers” to add more seats.

A mockup of the new Airbus A380 winglets on board at test aircraft at the 2017 Paris Airshow. (Airbus)

A mockup of the new Airbus A380 winglets on board at test aircraft at the 2017 Paris Airshow. (Airbus)