The world’s biggest charter jet is heading to Wuhan to evacuate Europeans

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he only Airbus A380 in the world flying for a charter airline is going on a delicate mission on Friday: evacuating 350 people from the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in Wuhan, China.

Portuguese charter operator Hi Fly is sending its sole A380 to Wuhan to bring back evacuees from European Union countries. The biggest passenger jet in the world has the capacity and the range needed for the mission, an evacuation reminiscent of the airlift of U.S. citizens out of Wuhan earlier this week, for which authorities chartered a huge Boeing 747. Another 747 carrying evacuees from Wuhan, chartered from Spanish leisure airline Wamos Air, landed on Friday at a military base in Brize Norton, Great Britain.

According to a report by  Portuguese news agency Lusa quoted by several news outlets in Portugal, a Hi Fly airplane left Beja, Portugal, at 10 a.m. local time on Friday, headed to Paris, where it will take on board “doctors, officials and health technicians,” the agency quoted Hi Fly captain Antonios Efthymiou as saying.

The report does not mention specifically an A380, but flight tracking sites show that Hi Fly’s sole A380 left Beja for Paris at that time. According to his Linkedin profile, Efthymiou is a Hi Fly A380 pilot.

The plane will then head to Hanoi, Vietnam, and then on to Wuhan. Efthymiou said that 350 people will have to be repatriated from China, a number that the Hi Fly A380, with 471 seats, can easily handle. The captain was also quoted as saying that the airline has given his crew specific training for the mission, and that “every precaution has been imposed by the Asian aviation authorities,” presumably referring to Vietnam and China.

The nationalities of the 350 evacuees are not known at this time, but Portuguese media said at least 17 are from Portugal. The European Union said “two aircraft will be mobilized” through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, a system through which the European Commission — the EU’s equivalent of an executive branch — “plays a key role in coordinating the response to disasters in Europe and beyond.”

The repatriation flight marks a rare occasion for the Hi Fly A380 to actually take to the air. The airplane flew for exactly 62 minutes in the whole month of December, according to flight-tracking site FlightRadar24. In January it went on just one trip, a flight from Spain to Saudi Arabia and back, not counting transfers to and from its base in Beja.

Hi Fly took over the double-decker plane after its original operator, Singapore Airlines, phased it out of its fleet in 2018. An early-build A380 — the sixth off the assembly line — it was delivered to Singapore in 2008. To this day, it’s the only secondhand A380 flying in the world, but because of its unique size and high operating costs, Hi Fly hasn’t been able to find many customers for it.

Sometimes it’s used to substitute for planes that airlines have to ground for maintenance, which means passengers booked on a scheduled long-haul service with a different airline may be surprised to find themselves on the giant A380. That’s what happened to passengers booked on Norwegian in 2018, for example, when the airline was forced to ground several Boeing 787s and had to find a substitute.

TPG contributor Benji Stawski flew on the Hi Fly A380 in 2018 when it was operating for Norwegian. Since Hi Fly has kept the luxurious interiors from Singapore Airlines, evacuees from Wuhan may find themselves in first-class suites or business class with lie-flat beds, like he did. (We’ve also reviewed the Wamos Air 747, when it was also flying for Norwegian, finding it far less luxurious than the flat-beds aboard the Hi Fly A380.)

This might well be the second evacuation flight that the European Union statement spoke of. Because Hi Fly doesn’t have a base in Wuhan where pilots and flight attendants can rest and hand the plane over to a new crew for the return flight, it’s likely that the stop in Vietnam is designed to meet crew-rest rules. A relief crew flies on the Europe to Hanoi flights, then takes over in Hanoi where the original crew disembarks; the second crew takes the plane to Wuhan, stays on board while the evacuees board and then heads nonstop back to Europe. That way, pilots and cabin crew do not exceed the maximum time on duty allowed.

By Alberto Riva
The points guy

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