The biggest passenger airplane in the world, the Airbus A380, made its splashy debut at Logan Airport in 2017 amid unprecedented growth in international passenger traffic to Boston.
And that trend showed no signs of slowing down.
The Massachusetts Port Authority spent about $19 million to accommodate the giant, double-decker jets, including outfitting three gates at Terminal E with two jet bridges instead of one, part of a larger series of investments to upgrade the international terminal amid booming demand. British Airways started flying the A380 to Boston from London in 2017, followed by Emirates from Dubai in 2019. Massport said Lufthansa would likely join soon.
But fast forward more than 4 ½ years, including 20 pandemic months, and no A380s have visited Logan since January 2020. Airbus will stop manufacturing the plane this year, and Lufthansa and others have retired their A380 fleets. Though bans on travel to the United States from many overseas countries including much of Europe lifted earlier this week, it’s not clear if or when the A380s that once shuttled hundreds of international passengers into Boston each day will ever return.
In the meantime, the three Terminal E gates transformed to accommodate the A380 are being used by smaller jets that have no need for the secondary jet bridges.
Massport remains hopeful that the A380s will return to gates E10, E11, or E12 someday soon, “but we won’t know until airlines make those business decisions,” said David Ishihara, director of aviation services at the Massachusetts Port Authority.
It’s possible that Emirates or British Airways could bring the A380 back to Boston for the 2022 summer season, which begins in March and ends in October.
So far, British Airways has scheduled A380 flights to Los Angeles and Miami starting in December, joined by San Francisco in March, according to schedule data provided by Cirium, an airline data company. Emirates has already resumed A380 service to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C., New York City’s JFK Airport, and Los Angeles International Airport, and has scheduled A380 service to San Francisco starting in February, according to Cirium data.
But no A380 flights are yet scheduled to Boston. Both British Airways and Emirates are currently flying to Logan using smaller aircraft. In September, the airport had recovered only 36 percent of September 2019 prepandemic international passenger volume, with 260,481 passengers.
Spokespeople for British Airways and Emirates said the companies continue to evaluate their plans.
Emirates’ division vice president for the United States and Canada, Essa Sulaiman Ahmad, told Business Insider in September that the company planned to bring its A380s back to every US destination where they flew before the pandemic, which would include Boston.
The A380 is designed to move as many passengers as possible at one time — in style. The plane can fit more than 800 passengers, though airlines usually operate it with first-and business-class seats, reducing capacity to 400-600. With two levels that can include private suites, shower spas, and onboard lounges, the A380 is a symbol of luxury, advertised as the eighth wonder of the world when it debuted in the 2000s.
Emirates received delivery of its first A380 in 2008, followed by British Airways in 2013. Both carriers, along with Lufthansa, expressed interest in bringing the jumbo jets to Boston as international travel to the city increased, spurring Massport’s significant investment to accommodate them. The number of international passengers to visit Logan increased around 56 percent from fiscal year 2013 to fiscal year 2017 to reach 7 million that year.
“Looking back at the time, the A380 was not a ‘gee whiz, I wonder if we’ll ever see it,’ it was a certainty,” said Ishihara. “Planning for that type of an aircraft, it wasn’t . . . build it and the day will come, it was that it was coming.”
But even as Massport was preparing for the A380 as part of a $160 million refresh of Terminal E, there were industry watchers warning that the plane was on its way out, said Brett Snyder, founder and author of the airline industry site CrankyFlier.com. Lufthansa and Air France canceled some orders.
“You saw that initial flurry in the beginning from a handful of operators, but by 2017 it was pretty clear where this was going and it wasn’t good,” Snyder said.
Despite cold feet among some airlines, both Emirates and British Airways stuck with the jet, launching seasonal service to Boston in 2017 and 2019, respectively. Lufthansa’s A380s never showed up in Boston.
And eventually, the plane’s luster wore off.
In 2019, Airbus announced it would stop manufacturing the plane in 2021 after the company sold fewer than half of the A380s it planned to. Airbus overestimated airlines’ interest in the jumbo jet. Instead of buying into the “bigger is better” scheme of the A380, many opted for “more frequent is better” and invested in smaller planes for long haul flights that give passengers more travel time options. No US carriers ever purchased the A380.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed international travel and caused most airlines to ground their A380 fleets. Some, including Lufthansa and Air France, have retired the jets entirely during the pandemic.
Ishihara said Emirates is the airline most likely to bring A380 service back to Boston, but it’s too soon to tell whether or when that will happen. Logan is the most popular airport for planes diverted from JFK, said Ishihara, so even if regular service never returns, the secondary jet bridges on those three Terminal E gates could be deployed again.
“For our own organic market, this was an airplane that was coming and it came and we have to provide a level of service to the passengers that they expect,” he said. “The investment in those three gates was worth it.”