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The Airbus Group NV A380 known for first-class suites, gold trimmings and deep-pile carpets faces a less luxurious future as a pilgrimage shuttle that may help revive flagging sales of the superjumbo.
The double-decker flagship, priced at $414 million, could swap fine wines, bone china and lobster salads for narrow seats and frugal service as Airbus pitches the jet as ideally suited to become a workhorse for the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
Established as the world’s most glamorous plane with top-end carriers such as Emirates and Singapore Airlines Ltd., Airbus sees a new life for the industry’s biggest jetliner ferrying the millions of believers who visit Islam’s holiest city each year. To win sales for a model that hasn’t secured a new airline customer since 2012, it needs to convince would-be buyers that the aircraft has a place in their fleets outside the week-long Hajj itself.
“All the Islamic countries have potential,” said Fouad Attar, Airbus’s managing director for the Middle East. “The A380 is a big plane and needs knowledge and organization. We’re sitting down with airlines to work with them on how to improve the network, make more money and handle these special events.”
PT Garuda Indonesia, flag carrier of the world’s largest Islamic country, is a leading candidate for a Hajj-friendly A380, with Chief Executive Officer Emirsyah Satar saying at the Farnborough Air Show in July that he would consider the superjumbo. At the same time, Garuda is concerned there’d be little year-round call for the model and would be reluctant to buy without government help, he said.
At the height of the Hajj, which began yesterday and ends Oct. 7, Mecca becomes the world’s biggest cultural melting pot, with pilgrims from the African Sahel and Borneo rainforests rubbing shoulders with devotees from the central Asia steppes, Nile delta and western cities such as London and Detroit.
Muslims are expected to make the pilgrimage at least once in their lives, with Saudi Arabia assigning nations an annual quota according to population, which this year ranges from 160,000 for Indonesia to just 300 for Turkmenistan. While the most affluent arrive in style aboard private jets, the more typical experience sees hundreds of visitors squash onto 1980s- vintage Airbus and Boeing Co. models for what may be the first flights of their lives.
Saudi Airlines alone is renting 30 planes for this year’s Hajj, among them out-of-production 747-400s and A300s. That’s in addition to a fleet that already includes 38 wide-body planes that feature prayer rooms and areas for people to change into traditional Ihram garments worn for the pilgrimage.
Jeddah airport, the gateway for Mecca, demonstrates the level of demand. Capacity there is due to quadruple to 80 million people a year — more than the 2013 passenger total for all but two of the world’s hubs — by 2035 via a three-phase growth plan. The airport already has daily A380 flights operated by Dubai-based Emirates, and its tent-like Hajj terminal can hold 80,000 people at any one time.
Key to Airbus’s pitch for the A380 is the impact of the year-round Umrah pilgrimage, which has boosted demand for flights to Mecca well beyond the Hajj itself.
“As the number of Umrah pilgrims has increased, the effective pilgrimage season has lengthened and can now last up to nine months,” Attar said. “In the past it was not economical for an airline to own an aircraft specifically for the transport of pilgrims. Now it can be.”
Maximizing available seating to cope with the surge in Hajj travel is the driving objective for airlines, Attar said, with the A380 cleared to carry as many as 850 people in a single- class layout, though the densest planes specified to date — by Russia’s Transaero Airlines — will have 652 berths.
The double-decker’s Hajj credentials may be enhanced as the oldest planes come off lease in 2017, Attar said, when they’ll be 10 years old and better-suited to life away from premium travel, though Airbus is crunching numbers with carriers to show that the model can work for them right now.
Options for both single- and mixed-class planes are being explored, as well as ways of quickly changing the layout to switch between the two for Hajj and commercial flights, he said.
Parallel to its push on the A380, Airbus is also seeking to cram seats into the older A340, targeting carriers that want maximum capacity at minimal cost. The plan could extend the operating life of a plane that ceased production in 2011, buoying residual values for operators and lessors which include some of the Toulouse, France-based company’s best customers.
To that end, Airbus is seeking clearance from the European Aviation Safety Agency to add 35 seats to the largest A350-600 variant, lifting capacity to 475 people in a single-class layout, or about the same number carried by the newest version of the Boeing 747 in a three-class configuration.
“We see a good market for Hajj traffic,” Andreas Hermann, Airbus’s vice president of asset management and freighters, said in an interview. Adding the extra seats will improve per- passenger costs for the four-engine plane that are higher than for twin-jet models such as the A330, he said.
The high-density A340 would require the stripping out of some galley space, limiting food service, to permit an eight- abreast layout with 18-inch seat widths — a far cry from the three-room Residence suites offered on A380s at Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which come with a shower and personal butler.
–With assistance from Deema Almashabi in Riyadh.
To contact the reporters on this story: Andrea Rothman in Toulouse at firstname.lastname@example.org; Deena Kamel Yousef in Dubai at email@example.com. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at firstname.lastname@example.org.