Why these A380 superjumbos are flying empty out of Seoul

In May aviation enthusiasts spotted something odd: giant four-engine A380s taking off on flights from Seoul South Korea and heading nowhere.

Performing 20 minute loops over the Yellow Sea the superjumbos took off from Seoul Incheon Airport to return back where they came from. Seventeen similar flights were recorded by Traveller.com.au over a period of two days.

Any sighting was enough to excite plane spotters, with most of the 500+ passenger jets sitting idle due to travel restrictions. However, these flights were exceptionally odd, not only because they were ‘flights to nowhere’ but – according to flight manifests – they were completely empty of cargo or passengers.

The special mission these planes were up to? Keeping pilots in practice.

The planes belonging to Asiana Airlines were performing a standard aviation procedure, due to the lack of viable routes the carrier had to arrange “practice flights” for commercial pilots.

To keep A380 pilots up to standard they need to prove proficiency behind the controls every 90 days. This can normally be done on the ground in the cockpit of a training simulator. The closest A380 simulator is located in Thailand. However because not even pilots are able to travel as much as they used to, the airline had no other option but to arrange these ‘practice’ flights in the world’s largest passengers planes.

While pilot proficiency is controlled by individual Civil Aviation Authorities – they change little from country to country.

Pilots are certified to fly certain aircraft types with a log of the number of take-offs and flight time. To achieve necessary “recency” to be placed in the cockpit of a passenger plane pilots must have at least three flights logged in a 90-day period.

This is something increasingly difficult to achieve with so few planes taking off.

The access to certified flight simulators is also a challenge. The $30million + computer simulators tend to be shared by airlines and located at transit hubs. There are currently simulators in Thailand, Dubai, Sydney and at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse.

In this country Air New Zealand operates a Simulator Centre in Auckland for models across the network including A320s and B777-300. So we won’t be seeing any ghost flights out of Kiwi Airports any time soon.

The A380, however, is a different case. The few airlines fly routers with the Airbus superjumbo and as many carriers had begun cutting the fuel-intensive craft from their fleet –even before the coronavirus pandemic – the demand for these simulators is a lot lower than other narrow-body plane models.

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