Is the pandemic and travel shutdown over? Not by a long shot. But with Emirates Airlines once again flying its 500-seat A380 super jumbo jets, perhaps the pandemic has reached manageable proportions. Or as Winston Churchill put it in a different context, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
According to a spokeswoman. Emirates has resumed A380 services to five cities. Customers can currently fly the Emirates A380 daily to Amsterdam, four times a week to Cairo, twice daily to London Heathrow, once daily to Paris, and starting on August 8, once weekly to Guangzhou. The airline will “gradually expand the deployment of this popular aircraft in line with demand and operational approvals.”
With no vaccine yet available, what is driving passenger demand enough to get the giant A380s flying again for Emirates? It undoubtedly helps that Emirates is the first airline to offer passengers free global coverage for potential COVID-19 health expenses (up to 150,000 euros) and quarantine cost.
Prior to the pandemic and accompanying global travel restrictions, the world’s fleet of approximately 240 Airbus A380s made 330 flights per day to more than 70 destinations. But on April 27, 2020, the 15th anniversary of the first A380 flight, Flightradar24 reported tracking just one A380, a China Southern flight from Los Angeles to Guangzhou. By June, at the height (or the depth) of the pandemic, this writer was told “All A380s are parked at present” by an Airbus spokesman.
With air travel slashed as much as 90% in April, the world’s largest passenger jet joined the other 16,000 parked planes idled by the falloff in travel. Flying a 500-seat four-engine A380 nearly empty made little sense.
Other airlines took the 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.
Adding insult to injury, Qatar Airlines, which owns ten A380 superjumbos, said in July it will not fly them for ‘sustainability’ reasons. Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker said, “Having closely studied the environmental impact numbers, flying such a large aircraft with a low load factor does not meet our environmental responsibilities or make commercial sense.” Yet Airbus website IFlyA380.com calls the A380 “the most environmentally-friendly widebody aircraft in the world. With 40 per cent more capacity than its nearest competitor and low emission engines, the A380 burns 17 per cent less fuel per seat – translating to 17 per cent fewer CO2 emissions.”
Emirates obviously believes there is sufficient passenger demand to unwrap its A380s, although putting them back to work takes time. It takes four or five dedicated employees and at least 18 to 24 hours per plane bring one wide-body back to life.
Much of the premium service passengers expect from Emirates will return with the A380. Emirates will resume its service with hot meals, using quality, cutlery and crockery, sterilized before each use. In First and Business classes, single use menus and wine lists will be provided. Comfort items like mattresses, pillows, blankets, headphones and toys will be provided hygienically sealed. Emirates says customers will be given hygiene kit sat the gate before boarding flights.
What gives Emirates enough confidence to offer passengers COVID-19 flight insurance? The airline is taking significant measures to avoid spread of the virus.
Transit passengers travelling through Dubai International Airport (DXB) and transferring onto another flight will go through thermal screening. Transfer desks at the airport have been installed with protective barriers. The passenger waiting area has been modified to ensure social distancing. Staff dressed in personal protective equipment (PPE) aid passengers from a safe distance.
The boarding sequence has been staggered, with passengers boarding by row, from the last row to the first, in small numbers, minimizing passenger contact. Cabin baggage must be checked-in, and passengers can only bring essential items such as a laptop, handbag, briefcase or baby items on board, also minimizing contact in the aisles. Boarding gates are deep cleaned and disinfected after each flight. Emirates even asks passengers to bring their own pens to fill out forms.
Cabin crew on board Emirates A380s (and other aircraft) are fully fitted out in PPEs. Layovers in destination cities have been reduced, and on long-haul flights, where layovers are necessary, crew are put up in individual rooms in hotels. On return to Dubai, where all Emirates crew are based, COVID-19 tests are done on all crew. Every crew member has been mandated a 14-day quarantine in their homes after every flight unless they are on duty.
Emirates has also added a cabin service assistant to the crew on flights over 1.5 hours. The important if unpleasant job of the cabin service assistant is to ensure aircraft lavatories are cleaned frequently, at intervals of 45 minutes. For passengers, each lavatory has been equipped with sanitizing soap and hand washing instructions.
Emirates says its aircraft cabins have advanced HEPA air filters which remove 99.97% of viruses and eliminate dust, allergens and germs. And to minimize risk of infection by touch, magazines and print reading material will not be available, even though some studies show that paper is not a prime transmission source of the virus. When an A380 returns to Dubai, it goes through an “enhanced” cleaning and disinfection process, a big job for the big plane.
Is all this emphasis on sanitation necessary? Or is it “COVID-19 theater” designed to reassure potential passengers? Either way, Emirates efforts are working well enough to reunite passengers with a favored aircraft, the Airbus A380.