British Airways plans to take delivery of its first Airbus A380 on July 4. The world’s largest commercial aircraft is therefore now operated by all three of the big European airlines, BA, Air France and Lufthansa.
BA has placed an order for a total of 12 A380s, the same number as Air France and five fewer than Lufthansa. And while the airline has options to buy seven more of the type, Willie Walsh, CEO of the airline’s parent, International Airlines Group, told Aviation Week earlier this year that it is “unlikely” BA would take on additional A380s, saying “we think 12 is a good [fleet] size.”
With entry into service imminent, a series of short-haul proving routes will be undertaken before the first scheduled long-haul routes—from London to Los Angeles and Hong Kong—are introduced in October of this year.
The British Airways long-haul fleet strategy gives Airbus reason to worry, because the airline has opted to buy only 12 of the jets when it actually needs to replace more than 50 Boeing 747-400s, the market that Airbus has been targeting when it launched the A380 in 2000. What was once a homogeneous 747-400 fleet is being split up between the A380 and the A350-1000 as well as—very likely—the new Boeing 777X. British Airways also is a launch customer for the 787-10, and might place the aircraft on some former 747 routes.
Air France also appears to be focusing on medium-size and large twins instead of ordering a larger fleet of A380s. Lufthansa is the notable exception; it is the biggest European customer, with 17 A380s currently on firm order, 10 of which have been delivered. The German carrier also has bought 19 Boeing 747-8s. These and the A380s are replacing a 747 fleet of 30 aircraft, which has already shrunk as a result of retirements as A380s and 747-8s were added.
The size of the order is also an indication of the airline’s plans to grow capacity on trunk routes. Lufthansa plans to make a decision about a large widebody twin order for either the Airbus A350-900/1000, or what could be a mix of Boeing 787-10s and 777X versions.
BA, which has always steered clear of being a launch customer for any new aircraft type, is a late entrant to the wide jumbo market, since 104 A380s are already in service with other carriers. In spite of the relatively small number of A380s on order by BA and the strategic implications, the deal is important to Airbus partly because the airline has never bought Airbus widebodies, instead relying on an all-Boeing 747, 777 and 767 fleet for decades.
The future BA long-haul fleet will consist of models made by both manufacturers. That fleet division was well illustrated by the fact that the first A380 arrived at Heathrow just a week after the first Boeing 787. BA also has firm orders with Boeing for 34 787-9s and the airline was announced as a launch customer of the double-stretch 787-10 at the Paris air show last month.
But the arrival of two different new long-haul aircraft types within days is also a serious challenge for the airline’s operations and engineering departments. BA Engineering has been preparing for the A380’s arrival since early 2010.
Much infrastructure change was required to accommodate the type. Conversion of the first hangars at its London Heathrow Airport base commenced in January 2010, and preparation for the second hangar started as the first was completed in March 2012.