Airbust

Back in the early 2000s when I used to frequent the off-topic message boards on a rugby league fansite, a discussion started about the new Airbus A380, the superjumbo that would become the world’s biggest passenger plane. One of the contributors thought it would fail, and explained there were two theories as to how people would travel by air in future. One theory reckoned people would fly en masse between hubs such as London, Dubai, Singapore, and New York before transferring to shorter flights which would take them to their final destination. The other theory said people would just fly direct from one destination to another. The A380 with its 500 seats was banking on the former being correct; Airbus’ rival Boeing bet the other way, and developed the 787 Dreamliner which was much smaller, but had the same range and was more fuel efficient. The contributor on the RL forum thought Boeing was making the right call.

For a while it looked as though both theories were right. Direct flights between regional cities became more common, while Singapore, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, and other cities became hubs from which the A380 operated. Not every airport could handle an A380; the double-decker passenger boarding bridges had to be installed and the runway had to be a certain length. When I was sick on an Emirates A380 I was given a bollocking by the flight crew for boarding in the first place because “we can’t just land this thing anywhere in an emergency, you know?” But for a while, it looked as though this aircraft would be a success.

However, with fuel prices rocketing in the mid-late 2000s, the A380 became expensive to operate, especially in comparison with Boeing’s smaller alternatives. Orders slowed and yesterday I read this:

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has pulled the plug on its struggling A380 superjumbo, which entered service just 12 years ago.

Airbus said last deliveries of the world’s largest passenger aircraft, which cost about $25bn (£19.4bn) to develop, would be made in 2021.

The decision comes after Emirates, the largest A380 customer, cut its order.

The A380 faced fierce competition from smaller, more efficient aircraft and has never made a profit.

It’s a shame in a way because it’s an impressive feat of engineering, but they weren’t that nice to fly in. I flew business class in an A380 with Emirates and Etihad and while it’s fun to wander to the bar at the back and order a drink, I found the seats on the Dreamliners much nicer. It was also a lot quieter. I’ll miss the A380 a little and be glad I had the chance to fly in a few of them, but what I’m really glad I experienced is the top deck in a 747. These planes don’t carry passengers any more but when they did, getting a business class seat in the exclusive top deck was as close as most of us will come to flying in a private jet.

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46 thoughts on “Airbust

  1. You can still travel top-deck business class on Lufthansa 747s. Mrs Bloke has done, though I haven’t. Airmiles permitting, I prefer the first class cabin in the nose 😉

    Comparing sales with the early years of the 747, things don’t seem that much worse for the A380. I guess it has been killed as much by the lack of a secondary market for the aircraft as anything else. It was designed too late, and too early.

  2. The problem with multi-stage transport is that it looks efficient on paper. But when you do it in real life, the imperfections quickly become apparent.

    Unless you have fast disembarkation and embarkation and frequent services, it doesn’t work. People going from London to Chicago will be sitting around in Newark for a few hours for a connection. And they know if one part is delayed, that could turn into a lot more hours.

  3. Did you fly the shorter 747 with fewer seats on the upper deck? That was even more exclusive.

  4. You can still travel top-deck business class on Lufthansa 747s.

    Oh, I read somewhere that when Korean Air phased theirs out last year, that was the last. I didn’t even know the Luftwaffe flew 747s, tbh.

  5. Did you fly the shorter 747 with fewer seats on the upper deck?

    Dunno, I only flew upstairs a few times, definitely not enough to start taking measurements. 🙂

  6. Unless you have fast disembarkation and embarkation and frequent services, it doesn’t work.

    There’s nothing fast about waiting for economy class baggage to get unloaded from an A380. The reason I’m in good shape now is partly because of that. I was flying from Dubai to Phuket, first leg Emirates DXB-BKK then catching a completely separate Air Asia budget job down to HKT. I gave myself an hour or so for the transfer but I was waiting an age for the bags to come off the belt. They finally came and I had to run like hell through the airport and after 100m I was coughing and was almost sick. I was 33 years old, but no exercise for 10 years will do that to you. I was so ashamed, so the next day I went in the gym. There’s not been a week gone by in the 8 years since when I’ve not been exercising at least once, usually 2-3 times per week and I feel a lot better for it.

    So maybe the A380 program was worth it after all.

  7. If you want to fly top deck on a 747 BA will take you from Heathrow to San Diego (and back) in a 747, just book business class and choose your seat on the top deck. I know that because I just did the return on that flight a few weeks ago (though sadly not up top).

    Given the size of San Diego Airport’s runway this is almost as insane a combo of runaway/airplane as the Emirates A380 flight to Nice (which I have never done but which I have seen on the ground at Nice).

  8. An airfreight company (Rennies) schmoozed me with a first class seat JNB-CPT-JNB on a 747, way back when the upper deck had no seats at all, only a bar and chairs. Tres kewl. On the outward leg the sales rep and I managed to demolish two bottles of free sparkling wine in the hour and a half or so we were aloft. Sadly they never got around to schmoozing me with a flight on Concorde.

  9. I remember reading this exact comparison when the planes were being designed (or tested), the crux of which was both were betting on the future and only one would be right.

    The stakes were pretty high. But even then, you could see the dreamliner was way more versatile. Believing airports would retrofit was a really dumb move, and market limiting.

    I look at it differently. When something defies logic, and goes against all you know and see, failure is assured.

    I was flying nearly constantly at the time, and my take was – who the fck wants to fly on that colossus with over 500 other people. Boarding & Deboarding sure to be a suckfest. I’ve never been on one, but I’m betting “steerage” was miserable, even more than most planes.

    Nothing like flying to DFW from London, in an middle seat, next to a fat, sleeping bastard who’s spilling into your seat.

  10. I’ve never been on one, but I’m betting “steerage” was miserable, even more than most planes.

    It wasn’t that bad, and the best thing (at least on the Emirates planes) was that the seats were quite wide.

  11. I fly A380 on most of my trips, mostly via Dubai and normally in business and frequently in first class. I think the Emirates A380 first class cabin, is up there as one of the best around, certainly in my experience anyway, plus the shower, its gimmicky but it’s cool. I treated my mother and sister to a first class A380 return from the UK to Brisbane at Christmas time as well, they loved it.

    I often wondered how much the real cost of manufacturing these monsters was hidden behind some romantic bullshit notion of the various parts of the Euro program subsidies or off balance sheet costs, connecting each other in wonderful collaboration to produce a magnificent piece of engineering excellence, which it is, for an awful lot more than the sales price. As a business man, all I could see was terribly inefficient double handling and silo type manufacturing, with the inevitable inefficient diversified overheard and the market killing layer upon layer of margin on margin. The yanks must have been pissing themselves laughing.

    I knew the gig was up a couple of years ago when Emirates were flying them around the various short haul mid-east locations with about 10% utilization as far as I could see, they just get them up to altitude and then they descend for landing, I doubt the engine oil even got warm, pushing a lot of tin with no sardines, comes to mind.

    Can’t wait to experience the Emirates first class Dreamliner, it has full height wall so you never have to see anybody other than if you leave your cabin, you can even get your caviar and vodka served through a small hatch and they have nice fake views on the windows. Heading up to Munich next month but its a A380 all the way, via Dubai of course.

    The airline industry is growing rapidly, Boeing are looking very solid with huge future orders, never mind the military demand. China cant get enough planes or pilots and there are all kinds of creative financing methods for airlines hitting the Asian markets every week, buckle up folks, this sector is only just preparing to take of. Just imagine how many bums on seats there will be, once the populations of the developing world start deciding that flying from A to B is the way to go.

  12. The A380 was a big mistake
    The A350 is solid and an amazingly quiet aircraft, which Emirates converted their order to, so another 40 on that order book for Airbus.
    They also can’t build A320s fast enough.

    If they’re smart, they’ll use the facilities of the 380 and convert the tooling to build more 320s. Given the size of the 380 production facilities, you could fit a couple of 320 production lines in them. Would be relatively cheap and quick. Then they could churn out more of their cash cow.
    Whether they are smart enough do this or not is a different matter…

  13. “They finally came and I had to run like hell through the airport and after 100m I was coughing and was almost sick”

    I have had so many experiences like that, where you know that you can just make it, plus you know the consequences if you don’t. Last Wednesday late morning I was flying to a client meeting in Hunter Valley, I cut my drive a bit tight and was on one of those el-cheapo airlines that I never know how to check in on, so I called the office to get one of the girls to do my online check in, they called me back to say that I had actually booked for the 13th March not the 13th Feb, and that they had also checked and there were no more tickets on sale for the flight I was on, and no more flights by any airline to Newcastle until the evening. It is a prick of place to get to, Newcastle Airport and there are hardly any flights, she said that the best that she could do was get me down to Sydney and then I could drive up to the project office which just wouldn’t have worked. I was cutting it very fine for a contentious client meeting and was also meeting some of our guys there that had drove up from Sydney earlier that morning.

    Fucking hell, I felt like an absolute cock, every bastard knew that I had to be at that meeting and the office birds would be spreading it around that I booked the wrong month, so I decided to continue to drive to the airport to see if it was possible to get on this flight. I broke all land speed records, parked the car and literally sprinted with my manbag to the service desk, the chick looked at me sweating, shaking and out of breath, she asked me how far I had been running and when I told her, she said that I should take better care of myself. She then said that there was a computer glitch last Sunday which was the day that I booked the flight and I was on the flight. So, no I didn’t get a heart attack, but I know the feeling very well and have had many similar experiences with suitcases as well and let’s hope that there are no speeding tickets in the mail either.

  14. “Unless you have fast disembarkation and embarkation and frequent services, it doesn’t work””

    Emirates business class and obviously first class, chauffeur pick up from your home or hotel, fast track customs and into lounge, same level entry to cabin, some even have entry bridges from inside the lounge directly into the cabin, 14 hour flight, same level disembark, express immigration and baggage, chauffeur waiting to meet you as soon as you get outside of customs, takes your bag to the car and off you go to your destination, that he is already aware off, whats not to like.

  15. Bardon, you make my retirement sound just a little more pleasant today, but I am glad somebody is out there doing it.

  16. Never mind all this traveling nonsense. The 747 opened up much more scope for whodunnits. You could have virtually a locked-room mystery on the upper deck and you could cut down the possible suspects from the unmanageable hundreds to only the few people who had access to the upstairs at a relevant time.
    Universal had a 747 standing set on their lot for decades which was used for just about every TV mystery series at some point.

  17. @thud

    Half yer luck with Boeing, I have been tracking them closely and watching them grow, but unlike you I don’t have any.

    Coincidentally, I have just about agreed my departure terms from my firm, which will see me leaving them in the latter half of the year, it was a fairly quick decision by me on return from the Christmas holiday in January and having just turned 55. I got the golden handshake in return for swearing under oath that I will never reveal were the dead bodies are buried and foregoing my right to turn Queens Evidence in perpetuity.

    I will continue to do some consultancy work type assignment here and there for them and will remain a shareholder, up until they list anyway, so its in my interest that they do well.

    Believe it or not I went to see a very senior lawyer who is also the son of a Senator regarding my departure terms, at the end of the hour session and when I offered to pay his relatively high fee by credit card, he refused and said that he had never had a client that actually had got it right on how to play it out and that he didn’t consider that he had provided me advice. I have terminated many executives in the past and practice makes perfect. He also offered me some part time consultancy work doing employee relations type stuff for mine workers, coal is going gangbusters again. I said that I would get him to check my Deed of Settlement and we would discuss it further then.

    So between a bit with my previous employers and maybe this dude and another bloke from the Mid-East that wants me to set up a facet of his exiting business in Oz, it looks like semi-retirement is the next phase before they put me out to pasture.

    Time to get out of the fast lane after all these crazy years and let those cocky young bastards that have been clipping at my heels finally overtake me, funnily enough when I was in my early forties I made a promise to myself to do exactly that, strange old thing the universe.

  18. Universal had a 747 standing set on their lot for decades which was used for just about every TV mystery series at some point.

    Heh. 747s in thrillers always seem to have lots of lifts and passageways which I’ve never seen as a passenger.

  19. Bardon, congrats! I was worried about retiring (2-3years back) for all the obvious reasons but was determined not to define myself through work or worth and since then things have gone from strength to strength, so onwards and upwards for you too I hope.

  20. Flying out of Auckland, I love the 380 long haul flights. Straight to Dubai or Houston. We pay extra to do that, because I hate flying.

    Getting on and off takes a while, but nothing like waiting for a connecting flight would.

    I expect they will fly those routes for some time yet.

  21. Next Airbus product to bite the big one: the A400M? 80 orders to date, mostly good Europeans (exceptions are 10 for Turkey, 4 from Malaysia). If you’re $-limited you buy C-130s, if you’re crew-limited you buy C-17s.

    Since it’s a primarily military aircraft, even Angela might balk at buying more, despite having bought 30% of production.

  22. 787 range is ~2/3 of A380

    A380 and 747 doomed when twin-engine deemed safe for trans-ocean passenger flights

  23. @hopper

    If another one is to get cancelled, that’d be the favourite. The rest of their aircraft are selling pretty well.

    I doubt it will be though, not for a few years at least. Production is ticking along, albeit slowly, whereas A380 has been in a production slowdown, dragging work out as much as possible for a while.

  24. Airbus is a vanity company for the grand European experiment. Without the massive subsidies and government support, it wouldn’t exist.

    This is the fundamental flaw with all the “government included” ideas, whether it’s stuff like Solyndra, Elon Musk’s Tesla, or anything else whose economics are dependent upon the government picking up part of the tab. About the only place such a thing is at all justified is when you’re looking at the military-industrial side of things, or if it’s relatively restrained, like the old NACA was, and just engaged in supporting and encouraging a new industry.

    You want a symbol for why this BS doesn’t work, look at the vaunted NASA space shuttle program. If they’d have put the money into the X-projects that Jerry Pournelle was hyping back in the late 1990s, we’d have had a Falcon 9 flying under government colors back in the 2000s. Pournelle advocated for single-stage-to-orbit, and iterative design; exactly what Musk picked up and ran with. NASA had the early beginnings of that with the DC-X, but didn’t bother to complete it. Government provably has no place in making a lot of these decisions–The business case for the A-380 was purest moonshine, because outside of the Hajj market, no real need for it exists. Hell, you can’t even use them effectively for freight–They’re too big to land most places a freighter needs to go.

    Airbus was a vanity project from the word “go”, and will likely end just as soon as the European Union finally shuts itself down. Too many contradictions in the whole thing, too many subsidies. Frankly, the policy ought to be that if an industry or company needs subsidies past an initial start-up phase, then they shouldn’t get them at all–Because, unless it’s something really compelling like keeping a major defense asset in business, there’s no economic base for that business, and it’s going to keep bleeding tax dollars. Wait until the bills come due for all the state-sponsored industries in China… Down that road lies economic ruin.

  25. “Flying out of Auckland, I love the 380 long haul flights. Straight to Dubai or Houston.”

    That is a seriously long flight time, best that you bring a Jerry can of spare fuel in your hand carry, just in case the wind direction changes.

    “I expect they will fly those routes for some time yet.”

    Absolutely, its not as if their fleet of A380’s will be flogged off overnight.

    Qantas now do Perth to London direct in a Dreamliner, its a first for flying direct from Australia to Europe.

    The long haul market will continue to get longer with records constantly being shot down, Singapore Airlines will be doing a 19 hour Singapore to New York direct flight, when they take delivery of the new long haul A350’s.

    If you are that time poor and cash rich that you simply cannot justify being waited on hand and foot as you lie back in your luxury cabin, buying and selling your stock on the satellite t’ínternet, whilst munching on foie gras and sipping on Remy Cognac, then not to worry the solution is coming. Subsonic commercial flights are about to make a return, which will generally half flight times and they say that they this time around they will be far more cost effective than Concorde.

    But until the subsonic aircraft’s hit the market, I guess I am just going to have to put up with this.

    NEW EMIRATES FIRST CLASS SUITE | Boeing 777
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=i6IzHaZIsN4

  26. what I’m really glad I experienced is the top deck in a 747. These planes don’t carry passengers any more but when they did, getting a business class seat in the exclusive top deck was as close as most of us will come to flying in a private jet.

    Had that pleasure back in ‘99 on Virgin Atlantic from London to Orlando. One of the most enjoyable experiences in travel that I have ever had. The upper deck was only 3/4 full and the space between seats was quite wide. The food and wine and such were excellent. Got to play with an early version of a mini video tape player. Made up for the hellish flight I took in BC on the way over in a Delta standard wide body. That one was so lame the elderly gentleman sitting next to me got so fed up with the seats not reclining and some other things that he was used to, he demanded a seat back in economy and his money back. I did get some sort of credit from Delta for how bad it was but I fly so infrequently I never got to use it.

  27. I often wondered how much the real cost of manufacturing these monsters was hidden behind some romantic bullshit notion of the various parts of the Euro program subsidies or off balance sheet costs, connecting each other in wonderful collaboration to produce a magnificent piece of engineering excellence, which it is, for an awful lot more than the sales price.

    I recall seeing a documentary on the A380 as they were rushing early production/development in time for a big (Paris?) airshow. They were testing the landing gear and it wasn’t retracting into the body of the plane because it just didn’t fit. Wheels kept hitting the doors or the doors wouldn’t close with the wheels inside or some such.

  28. @thud – “was determined not to define myself through work or worth””

    Cheers for the best wishes and the same to you and the best of British for the next stage of your journey. If only we could put an older mans head on a young mans shoulder, my sons would be right, but alas it wasn’t meant to be like that.

    I must admit though that being dragged up in a working class setting and now being a hard fought for and unashamed, “bread head”, getting rid of the worth bit is something that I might have to grapple with a little longer.

  29. One of the economic factors that is against the A380 is ETOPS, long distance operation over oceans with only 2 engines.
    It doesn’t take much imagination to see how public opinion could turn against that quite quickly, making 4-engine behemoths wanted again.
    There have already been several very close shaves, so inevitable that one goes down in the drink sooner or later. (And I’m not counting the Air France imbeciles who successfully crashed their perfectly airworthy Airbus in the South Atlantic through lack of any piloting ability).

  30. Jim,

    So, your position would be what, then…? That the if the US is doing it, then so too should the Europeans? Stupid is as stupid does… The US subsidizes Boeing, and then Boeing feels like it’s safe to make stupid decisions, leading to Boeing suffering losses. Europe does the same for the created-from-whole-cloth Airbus, and it’s like the kid saying he’s gonna go jump off the bridge, ‘cos all his friends are.

    Stupid is as stupid does. The US kinda-sorta had a case for subsidizing Boeing for military work, but you look at things like the new refueler project, and you have to kind of wonder if those subsidies are worth the squeeze.

    It’s stupid all the way around; these companies could be making money, were they managed better–But, that better management ain’t happening because the current stupids running them can get away with fiscal murder on the balance sheets, ‘cos the politicians are making up for their stupidity issues with taxpayer’s money. This is not a good idea all the way ’round, because that leads to crap like the A380 happening, right along with the A400M and that Boeing refueler project. No matter who does it, it’s idiocy on a scale you can only get away with when the gods of consequence are looking the other way.

    For a company, government subsidies are a poison chalice, because they only encourage bad decisions. And, frankly, any decision made purely on political grounds is likely to be really, really bad on technical and financial ones…

  31. “And I’m not counting the Air France imbeciles who successfully crashed their perfectly airworthy Airbus in the South Atlantic through lack of any piloting ability.”

    I’ve only ever flight-simmed, albeit pretty heavily (my eyesight being one notch too bad to fly for real) but I couldn’t understand why they thought nose up was how to gain altitude. That’s like playing a retarded 1980’s arcade game. A lower altitude would give you a wider flight envelope, and that is surely what you would do? Find a lower flight level where you can at least guess at a safe speed from the angle of attack and power, and turn back to find the closest safe place to land. That they couldn’t work that out in the several minutes they have to play with shows how little actual flying experience they had.

  32. I’ve only ever flight-simmed, albeit pretty heavily (my eyesight being one notch too bad to fly for real) but I couldn’t understand why they thought nose up was how to gain altitude.

    Having worked for a large, formerly state-owned French company it surprises me not one bit that a supposedly senior individual thought he could override doctrine, best practices, common sense, the manual, as well as the aeroplane itself because he knew best, even though he clearly lacked experience and ability. These guys are taught self belief, arrogance, and very little else. What Airbus should have done is install a device which allows the autopilot to carry out the pilots’ annual appraisals, effectively making them their line-managers. Then they’d have been cleaning the cabin toilets with their toothbrushes.

  33. @Tim Newman on February 16, 2019 at 5:53 pm

    I was wrong, 787 & 380 range similar – 787 miles vs 380km error – sorry

  34. BiG
    I am and I have.
    The B team was the crew who caused the stall and reacted by pulling full back on the stick “”cos I wanted it to go up”.
    The A team, including a pilot who actually knew how to fly, raced to the cockpit to recover the situation being made worse by these muppets.
    And then the Airbus design failed them.
    In a conventional aircraft (read “Boeing”), the pilot would have felt the B-team idiot still on the controls, and arranged for his removal. By various means, in extremis, there is a fireaxe for this purpose.
    But the Airbus cockpit (from A320 onwards) have two game controllers, with no force feedback. So he didn’t feel the other guy counter-manding his sensible recovery input.
    Second design fail: the Airbus does not take the P1 input as override, it merges the two inputs. So all the recovery action was inhibited by the idiot in P2. P1 eventually noticed, but it was too late by then.
    The plane was successfully held in the stall from some 7 miles high into contact with the sea.
    To the credit of the flight control software, it never fell into a spin. [Kryten: Request permission to enter smug mode, Sir?]

    Actually, that’s the official story.
    Shortly afterwards, some Lufthansa driver deliberately flew his Airbus into a mountain, ‘cos he couldn’t get a girlfriend and was several cards short of a deck.
    I’ve always wondered if the South Atlantic Airbus P2 story might be different….

    I spent some time with Airbus and to a British engineer, to say “culture shock” is like saying ” It’s time to play the music…”

    I’d rather fly on Boeing.

  35. re: Chernyy_Drakon
    A350 is basically when Airbus throw in the towel. It’s basically their version of 787, albeit, a bit wider.

  36. “So, your position would be what, then…? That the if the US is doing it, then so too should the Europeans? ”

    Well whats sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander…….Americans are very good at seeing subsidies to foreign companies, while ignoring entirely the massive amounts the US State bungs (in one way or another) at American ones. American companies (and people) like to see themselves as swashbuckling capitalists forging their own destiny with their Atlas Shrugged spirit, when in fact many of them are as clamped to the taxpayer teat as any one else in ‘socialised’ Europe.

  37. Pcar: I’d rather fly on RR engined plane
    Indeed! And real RR too, not IAE (if that’s the right acronym? it's a long time ago: they made v2500 for A320).

    Since all the technology in a modern plane is the wings and the engine (both British in Airbus), it'd be a shame not to fill in the rest.
    But it would never be allowed: think of the carbon cost!

    And whan an RR engine lets go, it makes a proper job of it! (see QF32, the story of the Quantas a380)
    Now that’s a fine story of cool decision making.

  38. I don’t think it is so much that the hub based model for long distance flights lost out to the point to point model – the world contains a great deal of both – as that (as several other people said) the large four jet aircraft (the 747 and A380) lost out to the large twin jet, which is simply more efficient. The largest twin-jet available is the 777. The largest versions are almost as large as a 747, and the 777 has always been a runaway bestseller. A large portion of 747s have not been replaced by A380s but by 777s.

    There are still about 500 Boeing 747s in service, but they are gone from the most glamorous airlines, and others are phasing them out. It will be possibly to fly on one somewhere for quite a few years yet, I think. Lufthansa’s are almost brand new.

    There is also another world out there – which is aircraft used for cargo. The economics of that business are different, and aircraft types that are not much seen any more in the passenger world can sometimes still be big players there. The 747 was initially designed principally as a cargo aircraft – the reason it has a top deck was originally to allow space for a front cargo door under the cockpit – it is still quite popular for this use, and Boeing is still making new 747s for this purpose. The amazing thing is that the last 747 to come off the production line will do so after the last A380, even though the first 747 was produced over 30 years before the first A380.

    Airbus never really considered a cargo version of the A380. The A380 was really little more than a “Mine is bigger than yours” vanity project. Given that it cost 25 billion euros to develop and then was sold at an operating loss after that, it was a very expensive vanity project.

  39. I don’t think it is so much that the hub based model for long distance flights lost out to the point to point model – the world contains a great deal of both – as that (as several other people said) the large four jet aircraft (the 747 and A380) lost out to the large twin jet, which is simply more efficient.

    I see. Thanks, Michael.

    There is also another world out there – which is aircraft used for cargo.

    I don’t know if this is still the case, but FedEx used to own operate the world’s largest aircraft fleet. Not the first company most people would think of if asked the question.

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