In focus

30 Sep 2010 by Alex McWhirter

Alex McWhirter examines topical business travel issues

Have you flown the A380 yet? No one should be surprised that the superjumbo has captured the public’s imagination in the way it has, much like the B747 did some 40 years before it. You only have to look at the fuss made in Zurich when Singapore Airlines (SIA) brought in the aircraft earlier this year, or when Emirates inaugurated its A380 service to Manchester in September.

A380 flights tend to be more heavily booked, which explains why ticket prices are invariably higher than for flights operated by regular planes. The airlines are taking advantage of this popularity by operating it on short routes – for which the A380 was never intended – as a means of showcasing their best products.

Over the past few months Lufthansa has been publicising its A380s by taking one around its local region. SIA and Emirates operate daily on shortish Asian sectors into Hong Kong – from Bangkok, in the case of Emirates, and out of Singapore with SIA.

The best example of this showcasing was Air France’s summertime use of its A380 to operate the 340km hop between Paris Charles de Gaulle and London Heathrow. The carrier fitted in the short round-trip between its 8,700km stage for the superjumbo to Johannesburg.

Such was the interest in the A380 that despite the competition from high-speed rail, Air France had no difficulty filling every one of its 449 economy class seats – and that was despite tickets costing more than on the normal planes used on the London-Paris route.

In August, when I checked prices three days ahead, Air France’s A380 service commanded a one-way fare of £180, whereas flights either side operated by regular 125-seat A320s were going for £79. In which case, who said high-speed rail’s Eurostar was the preferred way to reach Paris?

Earlier in the summer, Karsten Benz, Lufthansa’s vice-president of sales and services for Europe, said the A380 had made such an impression that passengers were timing their journeys to fly the plane. He said: “Our A380 does not operate every day [at the time of interview] between Frankfurt and Tokyo so many passengers ask us when the plane operates.” (It went daily on August 4.)

The A380 is liked by passengers because they appreciate its spacious and quiet cabins. And in the case of Air France and SIA, those in economy class get a further bonus – they can sit on the upper deck in their own section. In Singapore Airlines’ case, the small zone at the rear of the upper deck has become the most popular of its economy class cabins.

But take advantage of this while you can. By next summer, Air France will be moving economy downstairs and installing more expensive premium economy seats upstairs. SIA’s plans are unclear, but if it spots a money-making opportunity then it too may act.

It is noteworthy that A380 carriers are targeting the lucrative Asian market, especially those business destinations where no local airline has either ordered or taken delivery of the superjumbo. The likes of Air France, Emirates, Lufthansa and SIA gain kudos among image-conscious Asians when flying their A380s into Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul and Tokyo. Lufthansa has gone as far as naming its third and fourth A380s after the capitals of mainland China and Japan, which is significant considering this airline has almost always named its aircraft after German towns and cities.

Benz said: “Tokyo is one of the strongest first class markets in the world. Johannesburg [Lufthansa’s third A380 city] is very strong for business and for economy in the winter period. So Beijing, Tokyo and Johannesburg are the cream of destinations our network planners could make.”

The A380 provides the airlines with a valuable operating advantage. Maurice Flanagan, Emirates’ executive vice-chairman, said in an interview on arabianbusiness.com: “I can’t understand why other airlines have been so slow to pick up on the A380. The economies are fantastic. It has given us a huge advantage because the seat-mile costs are much lower than on any other aircraft.”

Emirates has ordered 90 A380s, around four times more than any other carrier. Besides the lower seat-mile costs (estimated by Emirates to be 20 per cent less than the next largest plane), the aircraft’s greater capacity means carriers can get away with operating fewer flights – although this lack of choice may be not such good news for passengers, depending on your point of view.

Consider Air France’s Paris-New York flight, where the A380 enables it to fly five times a day compared with six last year, or SIA’s Zurich-Singapore route, where it replaced its double-daily B777-300ER service with a single A380 flight. On Emirates’ busy Manchester-Dubai service, the arrival of the A380 means it can meet demand without having to move from a twice-daily to a three-times-a-day service.

Lastly, the A380 is tailor-made for the world’s busiest airports – it can increase passenger throughput without the need to add extra runway space. This is of particular relevance at London Heathrow, where, barring a political U-turn, one of the world’s busiest international airports must make do with two runways.

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