Unlike any other airline on the planet, Emirates made the Airbus SE A380 jumbo jet a cornerstone of its fleet. The Dubai carrier still operates more than 100 of the giant double-deckers, whereas rivals have either given up on the behemoth entirely or fly it only in small numbers. Airbus itself pulled production in 2019 after little more than a decade of slow sales.
With no new planes available, Emirates is embarking on a massive $2 billion refurbishment program of the giant aircraft, seeking to extend their lifespan into the early 2040s. At a sprawling hangar near Dubai’s main airport last week, two A380s were being gutted and retrofitted with everything from new berths to fresh stairwells.
Gone are the gold trimmings and wood paneling that dominated the first iteration, with Emirates opting for lighter tones, fresh carpeting and mood lighting, along with depictions of local nature motifs. The popular business-class bar, where passengers can mingle during flight and enjoy a glass of whiskey, will stay. The cabin refresh alone accounts for half the investment, dubbed the Phoenix Project.
For Emirates, the upgrade is more than just a routine touch-up common in airline fleets. For the world’s largest international carrier, the A380 represents its ambition to connect as many people as possible via its Dubai hub. Other aircraft in its stable are either too small to perform the same job, like the A350-900 coming next year, or — like the Boeing Co. 777X — they’re years behind original delivery schedule, meaning Emirates must hold onto the A380s for longer than previously planned.
Given the size of the planes — a typical A380 comes with about 550 seats on two decks — the overhaul produces vast amounts of recyclable materials. Emirates says one aircraft alone sheds more than 250 kilograms (595 pounds) of seat leather and more than 600 kilograms of other fabric, which the airline has decided to use for a limited-edition collection of shoes, belts and backpacks, fitted with on-board trimmings like seat belts or the lambskin covers on pilot seats.
Emirates received its last A380 in 2021, and the entire fleet remains relatively young at about 10 years on average. The carrier originally estimated the refurbishment, which encompasses half of its A380 fleet, would take about two years in total. But surging travel demand has heightened the need for aircraft in the skies, meaning Emirates is fast-tracking the overall maintenance process. To date, 16 planes have received their retrofit and are back in operation, while two are undergoing refurbishment.
Most of the upgrades are done in-house, and the state-owned carrier has designed the operations to be largely self-sufficient as the A380 becomes an increasingly rare sight in the sky over the next decade.
Emirates President Tim Clark long lobbied Airbus to keep the A380, or to at least consider new engines to make it more efficient. It wasn’t to be, and Airbus eventually pulled the plug on its most prestigious aircraft.
“We will keep it going as long as possible,” Clark said at the Dubai Airshow last week. As for his efforts to maintain production, “I’ve been banging on about it, and each time they consign me to the loony bin, but there we are,” Clark said.
While the plane is a hit with travelers who value its spacious layout, quiet cabin and imposing presence, most airlines have struggled to accommodate it. The A380’s four engines — like those on the also-discontinued 747 jumbo — consumes more kerosene than the now-common two-engine models, some of which can carry almost as many passengers.
A number of A380s have already landed in aircraft boneyards, where they’re cut up and their parts are recycled. Fans can buy key rings cut from the aluminum skin, reflecting the sentimental value of the world’s biggest passenger plane ever built.
Emirates is tapping into a similar nostalgia with its range of recycled accessories. Besides shoes, belts and backpacks, there’ll be toiletry pouches, wheeled suitcases and luggage tags made of A380s scraps. Made individually by hand on site in the engineering facility, they’ll go on sale in limited numbers next year, with the option of personalized laser engraving.
“We are cannibalizing some of the early aircraft and storing the parts, and some of them we’ll make into suitcases and really nice bags and things like that,” Clark said. “Unless we can convince them to build another one.”
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