HomeTravelThe world’s biggest plane is back in the game

The world’s biggest plane is back in the game

My favourite French airport? Tarbes Lourdes Pyrenees, in the deep southwest. The setting is lovely, with a fine view to the south of the serrated ridge of the mountains that divide France from Spain. With a sizeable contingent of pilgrims, it is the only airport I know where holy water is on sale alongside whisky in duty-free. Depending on your time and luggage situation, you can walk to the terminal from Lourdes through tranquil woodland to the airport.

Best of all, I like the aircraft you see at “LDE”.

A glance at the schedule suggests that the planespotter would view little more than the usual suspects: Ryanair (with Boeing 737s) and Volotea (Airbus A319s) make up the majority of the airport’s traffic. But both sides of the runway are lined with parked aircraft, in what is the European version of California’s “airplane boneyard”.

Last time I was there, the cattle in a meadow adjacent to the airfield had a billion-dollar view. Airbus A380s from Air France, Etihad and Lufthansa were lined up, forced out of the sky by the harsh post-Covid economic reality: the double-deck “SuperJumbo” was a plane built for the good times. With passenger numbers still well below pre-pandemic levels, the four-engined behemoth was simply too big and too inflexible.

Billion-dollar meadow: cattle in the field adjacent to Tarbes Lourdes Pyrenees

(Simon Calder)

Air France actually began retiring its fleet of A380s before the Covid crisis. Soon after the pandemic took hold, Air France announced it would not fly the world’s biggest passenger plane again.

Demand for flying, though, has rebounded faster than anticipated. On Tuesday the schedule analyst OAG said worldwide weekly seat capacity is still 4 per cent below the equivalent week in 2019, but is now standing at 104.4 million seats – the highest level since the first week of February 2020. That approximates to as many as 10,000 people boarding an aircraft somewhere in the world every minute.

British Airways has just announced the winter 2023-24 plans for its fleet of a dozen A380s, which includes Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, San Francisco and Washington DC. These are high-yield routes for which BA believes it gains a competitive edge, as the only UK-US airline with the SuperJumbo.

Rhys Jones, of the frequent-flyer website Head for Points, says: “Flying the A380 is a unique experience, as anyone who ever has will know. Because of its vast size, it generally weathers turbulence much better than smaller single-deck aircraft and therefore feels much smoother, including during landing and take-off – when you’d barely know you’ve left the ground.

“The larger cabins, with taller, wider ceilings, also feel less cramped and it is generally regarded as having the quietest cabin of any wide-body aircraft. No headache-inducing background hums here.”

Lufthansa sold six of its fleet of 14 A380s during the pandemic. But the German airline plans to bring back the remaining giant jets in June to meet soaring demand; the remaining eight, says Lufthansa, are “currently parked in Spain and France for long-term so called deep storage” and will start to return in June on routes from Munich to Boston and New York.

For travellers for whom money is no object, however, the big summer news is that Etihad is bringing its big birds back to the London Heathrow-Abu Dhabi route for each of the three daily departures. The most luxury commercial passenger experience, The Residence – “The world’s only three-room suite in the sky” – is now open for booking.

“Featuring a dedicated bedroom, bathroom and living room, you can relax as you’re cocooned in a secluded world all of your own,” the Gulf carrier says.

While you enjoy the ultimate in aviation indulgence, you may care to reflect that the plane has spent the past three years beside a pasture full of livestock. And that the carbon footprint of passengers on a single flight in The Residence is probably higher than the entire field of cattle in a year…

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