10 January 2021
THE Airbus A380, the world’s biggest commercial aircraft, went into service on Oct 2007 with Singapore Airlines.
To date Airbus Industrie, the European manufacturer, has received 251 firm orders for the aircraft and delivered 242, with Emirates being its biggest customer with 115 of the wide-bodied aircraft.
Hot on the heels of Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Thai International Airways, Malaysia – through Malaysia Airlines Berhad, a Khazanah Nasional company – ordered six of these giants, targeting its key trunk routes to Europe and the Asia-Pacific Region.
Has the purchase of the A380 proven to be a success or are they destined for long-term parking at Pinal Airpark Marana, Arizona or Alice Springs in Australia? Or was it a wrong buy?
Sitting there precariously are the elegant six Malaysia Airlines Airbus A380s, a monster of a flying machine, in one corner of KL International Airport (KLIA).
It’s such a pitiful sight, victims of the Covid-19. So are the many other aircraft of two Malaysia’s domestic/regional carriers, Air Asia and Malindo as well AirAsia’s international brother, AirAsia X.
The situation is the same at all other international airports throughout the world, with aircraft parked all over the place, including the taxiways.
Aircraft are supposed to be up in the air, coming in only to offload or pick up passengers.
But with the pandemic and borders closed most of them, except for freighters, are grounded. For long-term parking, many are sent to the Mojave Desert, Pinal Airpark Marana, Arizona or Alice Springs in Australia.
The six Malaysia Airlines A380s, even before the pandemic, had not been flying much. Only to London, Hong Kong, Sydney and ad hoc to Seoul, South Korea.
Otherwise they were mainly used for Haj charters, which covers only about three months in a year and the Umrah flights to Jeddah and Medina.
Their utilisation, by any standards is low and not up to expectation.
The aircraft is a colossal monster – a double-decker, the biggest commercial aircraft ever built. At its maximum it weighs more than 600 tons, more than one third of it is taken up by fuel. For a flight to London from KLIA, the aircraft can consume up to 200 tons of gasoline.
To enable the aircraft to operate, due to its heavy weight and size, taxiways have to be strengthened and widened.
Likewise, the boarding bay had to be modified to enable simultaneous boarding/disembarkation for both decks.
Depending on the configuration, it can accommodate more than 500 passengers on its twin deck.
In the case of Malaysia Airlines, in a three-class configuration – eight first class, 66 business and 412 in the economy class – the aircraft has a total of 486 seats.
Some airlines have less seats, with space being spared for a lounge for first class passengers. They even have a facility to shower on board.
The challenge really is to fill up the aircraft for economic viability. So it was often asked: “Was the aircraft a wrong buy?”
Without doubt, anybody can be wise with the benefit of hindsight. Let me however, address the issue objectively, hopefully with no bias.
Firstly, let’s be clear the aircraft was purchased for Malaysia Airlines Berhad by Khazanah, upon recommendation by the airline.
Having said that, buying new aircraft is a major decision. It involves billions of dollars of investment. So any decision to be made for such purchases would only be done after a thorough feasibility study by a project team set up for such purposes.
One thing we have to know, aviation is one of the industries that undergoes constant and rapid changes.
In the last three decades, the technology in aircraft and engine designs, the air regulations pertaining to two-engine operations among other things, have changed tremendously.
It is a fact, at the turn of the 20th century, there was a boom in air travel, especially in the Asia Pacific region. Airlines had their aircraft generally filled up.
The Boeing 747-400 aircraft, dubbed the queen of the sky, was the most popular aircraft for Trans-Continental routes, from Australia, across Southeast Asia and onwards to Europe.
Malaysia Airlines had a fairly good share of air travellers, the economy and business sections were generally full all the time. Only the First Class section experienced poor load, simply because the fare was too expensive. Only royalties and ministers could afford it. Even CEOs of big companies travelled with business class.
Following market demand, the industry saw a need to have an aircraft with a bigger capacity. That’s where Airbus Industrie came up with the A380.
To be part of the league and not be left behind with other competitors in the region, Singapore Airlines ordered 19, and Thai International and Qantas both ordered six. Malaysia Airlines, got caught in the web.
A major consideration for new aircraft purchases, is indeed commercial and market demand.
Malaysia Airlines had to consider joining the bandwagon lest it be pushed out of competition and following a feasibility study committed to ordering six of them.
Like all other airlines, there were many other factors that had to be considered before making the decision. One of the factors was aircraft replacement.
The second part of this column will be published tomorrow.
– Mohd Kamil is a former director of flight operations with Malaysia Airlines.