Airlines plan for the future of air travel: Better fuel economy and smaller capacity planes are leading the way

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The changing landscape of passenger air travel combined with COVID-19 restrictions have left airlines scrambling to find profitable pathways to move forward. One casualty of the pandemic and reduced travelling is large commercial aircraft, like the A380. These large capacity planes have proven difficult to fill, costly to maintain, and carry with them environmental impacts that are challenging to mitigate. Is the future of passenger air travel smaller planes that are more fuel efficient?

According to Airbus, the A380 is the world’s largest commercial aircraft flying today, with the capacity to carry 544 passengers in a comfortable four-class configuration. The A380 has two full-length passenger levels: a main deck and an upper deck, which are conveniently linked by fixed stairs forward and aft.

The A380 has transported a staggering 120 million passengers!

At the peak of air travel in early 2020, the A380 was at the core of major airlines flying the hub and spoke model, which included major carriers like Emirates, Lufthansa, Qatar, British Airways, Air France and others. The A380 played a major role in powering their route and network strategy. And then the pandemic hit.


Airlines worldwide continue to suffer the impacts of COVID-19. While some airlines saw traffic recover during a few months in 2020 to as much as 50% of 2019 levels, sadly this wasn’t long-lived. The second half of 2020 saw the next wave of COVID-19 sweep across Europe and other parts of the world, bringing with it a host of new lockdowns and travel restrictions.

Spire Aviation data reveals fascinating insights about commercial aviation routes and the A380 operations. Scroll down to discover all the airlines in the world flying A380.


The pandemic disruption triggered a steep drop in flights in the large aircraft category filled by the Airbus A380, A340, and Boeing 747 variants, the last of the four-engine aircraft platforms.

(Image: Number of aircraft in operation A340, A380 and B747 pax)

The aircraft in-service chart shows the significant drop in four-engine long haul operations during the pandemic, which rely on economies of scale to make the business model work. The number of A380s in operations dropped from 234 to only 64 at the end of the year.

(Image: Number of flights by A340, A380 and B747 pax)

This flight activity chart shows the staggering drop in A380 flight activity in 2020. The number of flights plummeted from 28,000+ flights in Jan 2020 to 1,600+ in Dec 2020. That’s less than 10% of the figures from the start of the year!


The A380’s reliance on economies of scale has put it directly in the coronavirus firing line, as airlines struggle to fill even their smallest planes due to pandemic lockdown measures and weak consumer demand.

Emirates is the largest operator of the A380. The aircraft was at the core of the airlines’s business model and a key tool to drive tourism into Dubai. In March 2020, there were 115 A380s in-service with Emirates. In contrast, by Dec 2020 only 24 of them remained in active service.

Other airlines took the travel slowdown as an opportunity to ground or permanently dump their expensive-to-operate aircraft. Lufthansa, which reportedly had only been filling 35% of the seats on its A380 fleet (talk about social distancing) grounded all 14 of its A380s, as did Air France, Qantas, Korean Air and Asiana Airlines.

Flight activity of the A380s among all airlines reveal the shocking stats about the total demise of the aircraft in the respective airline’s network. Adding insult to injury, Qatar Airways has confirmed it will be retiring half of its fleet of 10 Airbus A380s, citing concerns over environmental impact. The extraordinary circumstances brought by  Covid-19 have resulted in superjumbo fleets disappearing from our skies sooner than anyone expected.

When traffic picks back up again, airlines are planning to fill the capability void left by the grounded A380s with new generation, fuel efficient, long-haul twin engine aircraft like the A350 and B787.

Spire Aviation data will continue to record commercial flights in fine detail and is tracking the A380 and other long-haul widebody aircraft activity globally. Airlines worldwide with long-haul widebody aircraft are adapting their network and fleet strategies to navigate COVID-19 travel bans, utilize fleet capacity, and meet passenger demands. Satellite powered air traffic data is shedding light on evolving strategies and their effect on the global economy.

Read also: How the B747F remains the undisputed workhorse of the global air cargo and logistics sector

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