British Airways will begin the gradual process of surrendering its crown as the world's largest Boeing 747 operator in July when it starts the transition to the Airbus A380, and embarks on the most substantial change to its long-haul fleet in almost two decades.
The airline has 52 747-400s but the introduction of the A380s and the increasing use of the 777-300ER will reduce the fleet to 37 by 2017.
BA aims to have three initial A380s in service by the end of this year but is having to balance carefully its introduction of the type after various programme hitches resulted in the A380 and 787 entry into BA service falling within the same narrow window.
The carrier ordered 12 A380s and 24 787s in December 2007, originally planning to renew the long-haul fleet from 2010.
BA had intended to separate their introduction by at least a year but has been forced to juggle in the wake of programme delays as well as the A380 wing-bracket problem and the three-month grounding of the 787 over battery issues.
"It's a tough challenge to bring the two aircraft in," admits BA managing director for operations Garry Copeland. "We've sequenced work on the two to have a successful entry into service for both."
He says that the airline's capacity resources, and its decision to invest in a batch of Boeing 777-300ERs, have enabled it to "minimise the inconvenience of not getting the aircraft on schedule".
BA chief executive Willie Walsh says the airline had "crewed up" in the expectation of having the A380s and 787s earlier.
"Unfortunately, once you start training, with pilots in particular, they're committed to that aircraft type," he says. "So we had pilots trained to fly those aircraft who [couldn't] fly other aircraft."
BA operates the only A380 simulator in the UK, an L-3 Link model located near its London Heathrow engineering base and forming part of the future Learning Academy.
"Commissioning of the simulator allowed us to keep [the pilots] current," says Copeland. "On the engineering side we've been able to deploy trained guys [elsewhere]."
Both the A380 and 787 devices are located inside a building which, once renovated, will become the home to another 14 simulators to be transferred from BA's Cranebank facility from April 2014. They will cover not only the current BA fleet types but other aircraft for third-party business.
"Cabin crew training begins in earnest when we have access to the [A380]," says Copeland. "The essentials are all in place. We're consolidating and polishing the final process."
Introduction of the jets is the culmination of three years of "intense" preparation, he says, which has included adapting infrastructure at Heathrow's Terminal 5 – particularly the power supply facilities for the 787 – as well as modifying two maintenance hangars, and providing ground-run pens, to support the technical demands of the aircraft.
"It not just about getting the A380 in," says Copeland, referring to the slot cut into the hangar to accommodate the double-deck aircraft's 24m vertical fin.
Heathrow has already enabled engineering teams to gain hands-on experience, for the best part of a year, through supporting other A380 operations. BA's engineering division has also garnered much technical experience with composite materials, from which the 787 is largely constructed.
BA's last major long-haul fleet change was the introduction of the 777 in 1995, although the evolution to the larger 777-300ER is resulting in notable changes to the network – including the recent replacement of the 747-400 on services to Sydney.
But Copeland says the new fleets have required the airline to rethink its approach: "We've taken the view that the A380 and 787 are fundamentally different from other types."
He says the new jets have become "catalysts" for changes within the BA operation: "The volume of data coming off the aircraft is immensely more than from other aircraft," Copeland says, adding that one of the carrier's key tasks is to integrate it all and "make sure we're staying well ahead of the aircraft" by turning quantities of data into "useable intelligent information".
BA will halve its fleet of 14 long-haul 767-300s by 2015, when it will have introduced a dozen 787s to its network. Copeland says the 787 amounts to a direct replacement for the 767 but the A380 is "more of a hybrid" and not a simple swap for the 747-400.
"We'll put it where we can make the most use of that size of aircraft," he says, adding that the 469-seat capacity of the A380, much higher than the 345-seat layout of its densest 747s, will "free slots for other things".
BA's initial A380 service will be to Los Angeles in October followed by Hong Kong a month later. Willie Walsh says the A380 operations will have a "positive impact" on the carrier's non-fuel unit costs towards the end of the year.
In the interim the aircraft will undergo a period of pre-service modifications, software uploads and other routine checks at Heathrow before being deployed to Manston airport for two weeks for crew training.
Manston will serve as a base for circuits but BA also intends to operate the A380 on a number of European routes from the airport. The airline will also use Manston, which has a 2,748m (9,015ft) runway, for 787 pilot training.
Cockpit crew training is "strongly spooling up", says Copeland, and the carrier is "closing on plans" to use the A380 to operate a series of short-haul services on a limited number of European routes from Heathrow.
Although passengers will be able to fly on board the aircraft, BA intends to restrict the number of seats available to avoid potential problems if it needs to substitute the aircraft.
Crews will be drawn from the long-haul 777 and 747 fleets, but Copeland says that – for the first batch of around 100 pilots – the carrier is drawing from those who have flown Airbus types. "We're taking pilots who have some Airbus experience [and are] closely familiar with the basic Airbus architecture and principles," he says. All pilots will undertake a few weeks of ground school as well as carry out simulator and line flying.
BA's selection of routes is "driven more by tactical considerations" rather than the availability of technical facilities. "The prime driver is getting the training," says Copeland, adding that the carrier will be using its own servicing personnel to support the flights.
It wants to build a core instructor group and the short-haul services will enable pilots to fly around four sectors daily in the type.
BA has turned to other A380 operators such as Oneworld partner Qantas, as well as Airbus, to prepare for service entry. "We try to make it a policy of learning lessons whenever we can – the A380 community has been very open," says Copeland. "Information from the test fleet and flying fleet have been made available to the flying community. We've seen what the aircraft have been experiencing in service. And we've gone to look at how aircraft have been operated."
BA aims to have nine Rolls-Royce Trent 900-powered A380s in service by 2015, out of the 12 on order, and expects to train 20 pilots for each. The aircraft will be the first long-haul Airbus type to be used by the carrier, and it will remain a dedicated operation.
But the airline is still deciding whether the 787 will be a standalone fleet or whether it can usefully take advantage of 777 cockpit commonality. Boeing stated, at the time of the airline's order, that the similarities between the two types would enable BA 777 pilots to train for 787 certification in five days.
Copeland says, however, that the 787 will have "dedicated crews" – at least initially – and the airline will examine its operations with the type to determine whether the 777 and 787 fleets could operate jointly, particularly once the larger 787-9s arrive.
The initial 787-8s will be fitted with 214 seats. BA has yet to reveal the layout of the -9s.
BA will begin the slow withdrawal of its 747-400 fleet as the A380s are phased in. Those not immediately replaced by the double-deck Airbus will be succeeded eventually by the A350-1000 and additional 787s – possibly the 787-10 - from 2017.