Most of us might stretch to a few tens of thousands of pounds when it comes to refurbishing our homes or buying a new car. Sir Tim Clark, the British-born president of Emirates airlines, has just signed a $2billion refurb cheque. It’s very good news for British travellers because the lion’s share will be lavished on the jet that we like more than any other: the Emirates Airbus A380 superjumbo.
Airbus has stopped making the 500-seat double-checker “Clipper of the skies” as it concentrates on smaller single-deck, twin-engine jets to compete with Boeing, which stopped making its four-engine 747 earlier this year. Emirates’ Gulf-based rivals, Qatar Airways and Abu Dhabi flag carrier Etihad, say they will ditch their A380s in the next few years. But Emirates is doubling down.
In an interview with Telegraph Travel at the Dubai Airshow last week, Clark said: “The A380 will remain Emirates’ flagship product and a vital pillar of our network plans. We’ll keep all of them going for as long as possible. It’s going to be the late 2030s, maybe early 2040s, before we wave goodbye to the last one.”
A handful of the carrier’s A380s have already been refitted, but “the tsunami of demand for air travel” since the end of the pandemic has convinced Clark to commit to installing thousands of brand new economy and premium economy seats, and hundreds of business- and first-class suites across his entire 116-strong A380 fleet. (To put the size of Emirates’ fleet in perspective, British Airways, Qantas and Singapore Airlines have the second largest operational fleets in the world with 12 A380s each).
All Emirates’ A380s flying to and from UK airports – 103 flights per week – will be refurbished by 2025 in the first stage of the two-year refit programme, which will be conducted in specially configured hangars in Dubai. As well as reintroducing A380s on all routes on which it operated before Covid, Emirates is increasing its use. It now flies the jet to 48 cities, including Bali, Bangalore and Istanbul.
On the lower deck, 56 new premium economy seats will be installed in the nose cone, which means passengers can get on and off quickly using the front door, and will have three bathrooms. Behind premium economy there will be 338 refurbished economy seats, which will have a pitch (measure of legroom) of up to 34 inches, the most generous in the sky.
At 13.3 inches, the seatback TV screens will also be the largest in the cheap seats on any carrier. Twelve seats have no seat in front of them and vast legroom, and can be reserved for a fee. These are the best value long-haul seats you can buy, and a lifesaver if you have to go to Australia at the back of the bus.
Upstairs, the 76 new business-class suites will have new quilted cream leather seats and new lighter wood veneer. The overhead bins on each side will be removed to create a greater sense of space. The bar will have a larger sofa on one side and a table for four on the other. All the new seats will have seatbelts, so you don’t have to abandon your champagne if it gets choppy.
The walls of the 14 first-class suites will be higher and the seat wider and better upholstered. First-class passengers will get new pyjamas and slippers and can use the upgraded showers. Unlike most other carriers – including arch rival Qatar Airways – Clark is committed to first class because “demand is maxed out”.
Motifs of the ghaf tree, a symbol of the United Arab Emirates, will be added on walls across the jet, including in the showers. All the carpets will be replaced. All the refurbished jets will offer superfast Wi-Fi that is reliable (BA, take note).
Emirates bought just under half of the 251 A380s Airbus built before Airbus scrapped the programme and it now operates three-quarters of the number of jets still in service – as well as BA, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, the other operators are Qatar Airways, Etihad, Korean Air, ANA and Thai Airways.
Clark is so committed to the $550 million “big bird” that he revealed that a few of the carrier’s oldest A380s have been stripped down and will be used to provide spare parts for the current fleet to keep it in the air as long as possible. The fuselage, which cannot be reused, has been recycled to make baggage tags, suitcases and wheelie bags, stamped with details of the plane from which they were made.
The record investment is a bold move when new Gulf carriers are emerging to challenge Emirates’ dominance of the regional “hub and spoke” model. Qatar Airways and Etihad continue to expand. Etihad’s new home, Midfield Airport, has just opened. Former Etihad boss, Lancashire born Tony Douglas, is investing tens of billions of dollars to set up Riyadh Air, a new national carrier for Saudi Arabia that will operate from a new seven runway airport in Riyadh.
But Clark insists: “There’s plenty [of] demand to go around because of what’s happening in the global economy. The Middle East is becoming an economic epicentre. There’s an awful lot of activity in Dubai which is attracting people. It’s an enormously powerful magnet.” Emirates made a record $2.6 billion profit in the first six months of this year.
Clark would like Airbus to rethink its decision to scrap the A380 programme “because airports in many countries will remain constrained, so the only way to meet rising demand and keep fares reasonable is to operate larger aircraft” but he concedes that’s unlikely. “I’ve been banging on about this for ages,” he says.
Luckily for him, passengers think he’s still on the money. Emirates A380 flights from UK airports currently operate at 88 per cent capacity.