Qantas is bringing back Airbus A380s from the California desert

Qantas is bringing back Airbus A380s from the California desert

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California to Sydney: How do you wake an A380 after 1000 days in the desert?

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When thousands of long-haul aircraft across the globe were grounded at the onset of the COVID pandemic in 2020, airlines were faced with the question of where to store them.

At 73 metres long, 24 metres high and with a take-off weight of up to 560 tonnes, the Airbus A380 is the largest and heaviest passenger aircraft in the world and responsible for a significant chunk of international flying. Aircraft of this size require lots of space and arid conditions, making the world’s deserts the opportune (and arguably the only) place to keep them.

Qantas was criticised for slipping standards after flights resumed following the end of COVID-19 restrictions.

Qantas was criticised for slipping standards after flights resumed following the end of COVID-19 restrictions.

Aircraft boneyards have stored retired and damaged planes since the end of the Second World War and are vital to keeping the industry afloat, but the COVID-19 pandemic was the first time the world’s deserts were tested by so many simultaneously.

This month, the last Qantas Airbus A380 embarked on its long voyage home after close to 1000 days in Victorville boneyard within California’s Mojave Desert. Qantas was Australia’s only long-haul carrier during the pandemic and although its planes may be close to back in action, the airline does not expect its international flying to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024.

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This is partly because of the complexity of returning an aircraft of such magnitude to service. Reviving an A380 requires 4500 hours of manpower, where its 22 wheels, 16 brakes and internal furnishings are replaced. Tasks including replacing all oxygen cylinders, fire extinguishers and inflatable slides have derailed the process for some airlines by months, due to the ongoing global supply shortage of crucial parts.

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For Qantas engineers, reviving an A380 meant two months of work per aircraft in the sweltering Mojave Desert. Some lucky engineers were tasked with whacking the wheels of each plane to rid them of rattlesnakes or other unsuspecting foes.

The airline’s executive manager of engineering, Scott McConnell, said 100 of his engineers found themselves working through extreme weather – ranging from snow and icy cold storms to unforgiving heat. The only constant was the dust that enveloped everything.

A Qantas A380 in one of Victorville’s storage hangars.

A Qantas A380 in one of Victorville’s storage hangars.

“The entire aircraft is wrapped to protect it from moisture, dust and insects. Every opening, panel and crack is taped up – and that’s just the outside. There’s plastic covering everything from the carpets to the seats inside. And there’s desiccant everywhere. Picture unwrapping a new shoe, except bigger,” McConnell said.

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Before the aircraft can be inspected, it needs to be unwrapped, a process that takes considerable time.

“The plane isn’t even on the rack yet. Then there’s a whole series of tests we need to perform from things like fluids to the actual nitrogen and oxygen systems. We store the fuel in the wings to eliminate the water and condensation that would accrue otherwise,” McConnell said.

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Qantas chief Alan Joyce didn’t mince words about the gruelling nature of this task last October when quizzed about why the airline was taking so long to return to pre-pandemic capacity.

“They jack the aircraft up in the middle of the desert where all of its gear is tested, meaning aircraft’s engines are running around in the desert for months to make sure that it’s functioning. All that work is just to get out of the desert to Los Angeles or to another maintenance facility,” Joyce said.

The planes then went through about 1000 additional hours of maintenance testing before returning to service.

When global lockdowns eased, cash-strapped airlines were faced with millions of people who’d been deprived of travel for the better part of two years and weren’t prepared to tolerate further delays. Instead, travellers were met with industry-wide staff shortages, confused border control, COVID testing and vaccination requirements, high airfares and supply chain shortages that prevented aircraft from returning to service.

Planes in California’s Mojave Desert.

Planes in California’s Mojave Desert.Credit:Getty Images

Some airlines weathered this storm better than others. Qantas was heavily criticised in 2022 for slipping standards as it failed to juggle the demands of premium-paying customers. Much of the anger was directed at Joyce, who responded with public apologies and promises of improved performance on behalf of the carrier he has led for the past 15 years.

Qantas stored 12 of its A380s in Victorville. There are now seven servicing the airline’s London, Los Angeles and Hong Kong routes, with another three expected to return next year following the completion of an extensive maintenance check and cabin reconfiguration process. The remaining two jumbos were left in Victorville to be broken up into parts.

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Returning existing aircraft to service is not the end of Qantas’ fleet challenges. Although magnificent, Qantas’ fleet of A380s are ageing and the airline is yet to announce a plan to replace them.

The carrier’s management have been heavily criticised by some current and former executives, as well as broader industry experts, for downgrading the importance of average fleet age, a metric used by airlines to help determine when to invest in new aircraft.

The carrier’s average fleet age now sits at its oldest ever – 15.4 years.

Qantas will receive about 80 aircraft over the next four years to replace some of its domestic and international fleet. So far, it’s signed for a dozen A350-1000s. These are expected to service the long-awaited Project Sunrise routes, which will involve direct flights from Melbourne and Sydney to London and New York.

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Despite a higher average fleet age than many of its long-haul competitors, Qantas expects to spend $US5 billion ($7.4 billion) over the next four years on fleet investment. UBS research analysts recently downgraded Qantas stock, estimating the carrier would need to invest $12 billion over this period in order to replace expired aircraft and meet its deliveries, as first reported by The Australian.

A380s are not very fuel efficient. This is a hurdle for carriers such as Qantas or Emirates that choose to continue to rely on them while striving to meet their emissions-reduction goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. This is part of the reason Qantas has invested heavily in kick-starting Australia’s sustainable aviation fuel industry.

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Qantas’ investment strategy means those travelling on long-haul flights until at least the end of the decade will be carried by one of the 10 wide-body aircraft that were painstakingly revived after up to 1000 days in the desert.

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Amelia McGuire is the aviation, tourism and gambling reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.Connect via Twitter or email.
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