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March 19, 2009

Emirates A380 Won't Take Manhattan

You say hello, New York says good-bye to A380's glorious bathroom.
Photo: Ammar Abd Rabbo on Flickr using Creative Commons

by Barbara S. Peterson

So, you've been hoping to hop a ride on the world's biggest airliner, belly up to that upstairs bar, and climb that double-wide staircase linking the two giant decks? Sneak into one of those shower stalls in first class? Or buy a first-class ticket and laze back in a "private suite" complete with minibar and 23-inch TV screen? If so, mark May 31 on your calendar. That, folks, is the last day the richly appointed behemoth will roll into New York City for the foreseeable future. 

The decision of Emirates to yank the A380 from New York a mere six months after a splashy debut isn't a total shock, what with all those high-flying Wall Streeters grounded for the moment. But it leaves just one U.S. city--Los Angeles--with any A380 service at all, and given Qantas's ongoing technical difficulties with the airliner, and widespread reports of unhappiness with the jet's performance, you have to wonder when--or if--the supersize jet will ever fulfill its self-styled destiny as the plane of the future.

For now, it's just another dis to New York, which welcomed the A380 last August with the regulation fire truck dousing and officials on hand to crow about "a new era in aviation history." (I was there, and it was quite a show watching the jet amble by the now puny-looking 747s and 777s on the tarmac.)

Emirates is shifting the jet to Toronto, where it flies three times a week. With no offense intended to our neighbors up north, that's kind of like opening a play on Broadway and then deciding to take it back to Philadelphia. A second A380 is moving to Bangkok, where demand is also strong. The A380 currently flies to London under the colors of both Qantas and Singapore, making New York's loss even harder to take.

"It would be disingenuous to say that we aren't disappointed," Pasquale di Fulco, spokesman for the Port Authority, which owns JFK, told me this morning. Not to mention the $180 million that the port spent on fixing up JFK so it would be ready to receive the airliner--strengthening runways, widening taxiways, and expanding baggage areas. He's optimistic, though, that the plane will return soon, and he noted that in the meantime, Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways, and Qantas are all committed to launch Airbus A380 to New York in the next year or two. Andrew Parker, Senior VP of Public Affairs for Emirates, is also hopeful: "We want to return it to the JFK route as soon as we think demand is on the way back." The number of global air travelers will more than double in the next 15 years, so perhaps that demand will be back sooner than later. For now, though, Emirates will continue to serve New York with a 777, sans showers.

What's next for the A380? So far, Airbus has delivered a baker's dozen of them to three international carriers; Singapore was actually the first to fly it, on a Singapore-Sydney run. Dozens of major international airports around the world have spent millions on making improvements to handle the jet. No doubt they would have had to do this eventually, but the setbacks in the A380's progress have got to hurt. Plus airports depend on landing fees to fund these projects . . . as the fees are based on the size of the plane, the loss of the A380 is especially painful. But deliveries have slowed this year and, given the dim outlook for premium air travel, "that's probably a good thing," a source at JFK told me.


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