Dubai Airshow

Fleet Expansion and MRO Complicate Emirates' Future Plans

 - November 8, 2021, 4:00 AM
Emirates plans to take delivery of its 118th and last Airbus A380 by the end of the year. (Photo: Emirates)

Due to take delivery of its 118th and final Airbus A380 before year’s end, the coronavirus pandemic has focused more attention than ever before on Emirates’ widebody-only strategy. While many competitors who fly much fewer of the widebody units than Emirates have managed to retire the model due to the high associated fuel expenses and maintenance costs, Emirates does not have that option.

Emirates’ de facto cancellation of five outstanding orders for the A380 has allowed it to draw something of a line under the aircraft, but even the most optimistic forecasts indicate that it could take a matter of years before the entire worldwide A380 fleet gets airborne again, if that, in fact, ever proves possible.

“By the end of November, the number of cities that the aircraft will serve will be scaled up to 27, representing a more than 65 percent increase from its current 16," Emirates said on September 27.

“As the world’s largest operator of the A380 aircraft, the airline’s total fleet of A380s will reach 118 by year-end...The airline currently flies to over 120 cities, representing 90 percent of its pre-pandemic network, and plans to restore 70 percent of its capacity by the end of the year are on track with the return to service of more than 50 A380 aircraft.”

Capt. Hassan Al Hammadi, divisional senior vice-president of flight operations at Emirates, was quick to come to the defense of the aircraft as he eyed an end to the pandemic. In an interview with AIN, he underlined the A380’s centrality to the airline.

“We have currently about 50 of them back in operation. We have a plan to expand this to 55 in January, as other countries open their borders,” he said. “The A380 is our carrier’s flagship [and] the backbone of our airline. It will be a major part of our fleet for years to come…Most, if not all, passengers love flying the airplane. We are in the process of bringing them back one by one, two by two, four by two. It depends on the demand, but we are confident that, by next summer, hopefully, most of our A380s will be flying again.”

Given a dwindling number of components and spares suppliers, Emirates might face MRO headaches as the aircraft ages; in June, it said the fleet averaged 7.3 years of age. While the airline seems committed to its large A380 fleet, industry experts agree that it might require long-term solutions for it.

“They seem to be looking at diversifying their supply base,” said Lufthansa Technik senior director of sales for the Middle East and Africa Tim Butzmann. “With this potential change in procurement behavior, the interaction with them is becoming more active. We are discussing various services, especially for their A380s.”

According to Butzmann, almost all A380 operators are trying to find ways of changing their MRO procurement behavior to avoid extremely costly situations with the monopolies created for the aircraft as some suppliers go out of business.

Air transport consultant John Strickland told AIN that Emirates’ medium-term fleet expansion also faced problems due to snags at Boeing over the timely delivery of the 777X, of which the airline originally ordered 150 in 2013. It modified the order in 2019 to 126 Boeing 777Xs, with thirty 787-9s replacing 24 of the larger widebodies. In early October, Emirates president Tim Clark once again criticized Boeing over timely delivery of the aircraft and has said he would not tolerate any imperfections in the aircraft.

“The [figures] are currently more imprecise, as a small number of A380s have been retired and cannibalized for spares, and there could be more subsequently,” Strickland said. “Initial deliveries of Boeing 777-9s were due to take place from next year but because of production delays and technical issues; these have been delayed until at least 2024 or 2025.

“Emirates has already exacted flexibility with Boeing to adjust that order in favor of additional 787s. With some current Boeing 777-300ERs already retired or slated to do so, this delay is giving Emirates some headaches in terms of fleet planning and capacity availability. It’s a real state of flux, that’s for sure, at the present time.”

Emirates also announced an order for 50 A350-900s at the 2019 Dubai Airshow. “[W]e are always in discussions with manufacturers around different aircraft, for example, the A350 or B787, which are already in our order book; although still widebody aircraft, they are slightly smaller than the B777,” said Capt. Al Hammadi.

“Dubai is a major global hub. We still believe strongly in widebody aircraft, which did a great job for us over the last 35 years, and which we believe will do the same over the next 35 years. Of course, we are looking at more efficient aircraft, but Emirates still strongly believes in the widebody model. We think this is the best way forward for our customers.”