Emirates makes its first A380 ‘regional’ flight, to Manchester; a new era in more ways than one


An Emirates A380 made its inaugural flight from Dubai to Manchester on Wednesday 01-Sep, the first time this type of aircraft has been operated into a ‘regional airport’. The deployment of the A380 beyond primary airports like Singapore, Frankfurt, Paris and Sydney has come sooner than most industry analysts expected. As a case study, of service to a “regional” airport, a new era of opportunities may be opening up for second and third tier airports; the motto - be prepared!

Emirates will operate the A380 daily into Manchester with a B777 replacing the A330 for the other daily service and thereby increasing capacity to close to 900 seats each day. The airline has a double daily A380 operation at London Heathrow but otherwise utilises mainly the A330 on other UK services (London Gatwick, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow).

Well supported services

There are several reasons why Manchester may have been chosen. The A380 inaugural flight came on the 20th anniversary of Emirates’ first flights into the city, which pre-dated services into London Heathrow (at a time when such access rights were unavailable). Subsequently, the services have been well supported both by the business community and leisure travellers and are particularly popular for sixth freedom onward flights to and from the Indian sub-continent, South Asia and Australia. The region is home to several generations of immigrants from the subcontinent.

Furthermore, the airline’s Executive Vice Chairman, Sir Maurice Flanagan KBE, is a native of the Manchester city-region, still wields considerable influence in the airline in his 81st year, and was reportedly instrumental in arranging a hastily convened meeting in Dubai earlier this year during where Manchester Airport executives were asked to explain how prepared they were to handle the aircraft and to draft out a plan to do just that.

In that respect MAN has an advantage over most other UK airports. It had prepared for the potential to take A380 diversion traffic from other airports by investing in ramp and terminal infrastructure capable of handling the aircraft. One of the many advantages MAN enjoyed in the B747-200 era of the late 1960s and 1970s was that its runway and infrastructure could handle the Boeing widebody when it was diverted from Heathrow, prompting airlines to introduce new direct services there; and that lesson was not forgotten.

However, in the specific case of Emirates a series of gates has been converted in the old pier B of Terminal 1, including the provision of dual level aerobridges. Terminal 2 is usually the terminal of choice for mid-long haul flights but T1 is the location of Emirates’ lounge, which opened in Oct-2009, despite the pier in question being the oldest and most in need of refurbishment.

The gate is specifically for the use of Emirates and diversions continue to be catered for if necessary by facilities at gates 27, 60 and 62.

There are no known plans by any of the other A380 operators to fly into Manchester. It would not be appropriate to either Air France or Lufthansa, except perhaps to carry passengers to a major event like a sports fixture. Singapore Airlines will revert to a daily Manchester service soon, but only by doubling up with Munich and will probably persevere with B777 equipment. Although Qantas did fly into MAN in the 1980s and early 1990s it has not done so since. Neither are there any known plans for any A380 operator to fly to any other UK city.

An A380 case study for other tier three airports like Manchester

The A380 has arrived at this level of airport somewhat earlier than expected. Manchester was identified by Airbus as a tertiary level airport for the type, well behind primary European airports like Heathrow, Paris CDG, Frankfurt and Amsterdam and after the second tier which includes airports like Madrid, Rome Fiumicino and Zurich. At the time the first A380 entered service, in Oct-2007, it was anticipated that demand at the secondary level would justify deployment within five years; and at the tertiary level within 10 years.

Third division Manchester has thus arrived on the map a little less than a mere three years after that first flight. In itself, that is quite a gamble for Emirates because although it does not charge a ticket price premium for the aircraft itself (and that despite the fact that so many passengers insist on using it when it is allocated to a route, rather than other aircraft), neither does it like to ‘discount’ fares at any cabin level on this aircraft. Other airlines, notably British ones, have pulled out of Manchester long haul routes on the basis that yields are not sufficiently high. Nevertheless, Emirates reports that its advance bookings for first class are good.

Apart from the ‘personal’ connections mentioned above and the growth statistics for the route, one of the reasons for bringing MAN forward is quite possibly that so many other airports remain unprepared to receive it, presumably having concluded that with only five airlines operating it, it is too big for today’s market and that their prospects of seeing a return on the infrastructure investment are not good.

Emirates and Ryanair share a common problem – allocation of rich resources

The problem for Emirates therefore is, ironically perhaps, the same as that of Ryanair; where to allocate all the equipment that is due to arrive. With the recent orders, Emirates stands to receive a further 90 A380s and the number of airports able to host it is always going to be limited.

Presently, it seems that one or more Italian airports, notably Rome, may be in the frame as the result of strong traffic demand there and North American routes will be boosted. It appears that Emirates has identified routes for each of the 90 A380s but that information is not available at present. This will presumably include some assumptions about the way global aviation regulation will evolve over the next decade, as some national regulatory dinosaurs relax entry rules,

Defining a “regional airport”; the distinction should be “prepared” - or not

So, now the first one is deployed already to a ‘regional airport’. That terminology was applied extensively by both Emirates and Manchester Airport in the run up to the inaugural flight. The concept of what qualifies as a regional airport appears to be very vague. There is no obvious definition by ICAO or ACI.

An internet search reveals definitions in the Financial Times (‘an airport that serves a particular area but that has few international flights’) and Wikipedia (‘an airport serving traffic within a relatively small or lightly populated geographical area. A regional airport usually does not have customs and immigration facilities to process traffic between countries.’).

Any attempt to classify Manchester in that way, with circa 20 million passengers annually and a similarly sized catchment area, is wholly inappropriate. As Emirates seeks new airports for its very popular giant and turns to airports like MAN a new and much more accurate definition may be needed.

The progressive introduction of the A380 and, soon the B787, both generation changers, will quite probably make such definitions largely irrelevant; the announcement by Continental Airlines that it will use its first B787 to connect Houston and Auckland means that, as new equipment arrives and regulatory restrictions ease, new opportunities can open up for airports where previously they did not exist. But the airport needs to show initiative.

Another way of stating that is that “regional” airports now begin to gain some influence over their own destiny. Preparedness and awareness can pay off in ways that were once unthinkable.

The A380 as a marketing opportunity?

As for Manchester, MAN does have some special features – and it is not a tiny airport. Ranked 67th worldwide in terms of total pax throughput, it is however the world’s 27th largest international airport, just ahead of Miami. 85% of its traffic is international.

But its passenger flows have been declining over the past three years, giving it a less than 1% increase over the past ten years, although it has seen its international proportion increase by 3 ppts over that time.

Now, the potential of a high profile, high capacity aircraft such as the A380 could give the airport a much needed boost. It is undoubtedly also a useful marketing tool and differentiator, if used effectively.

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