I first saw this new æKing of the SkiesÆ û as Airbus likes to dub it û in November, when the plane landed in Hong Kong. This flight was part of the planeÆs safety certification process and like a visiting film star, its debut flight to Hong Kong attracted quite a crowd. However, while everyone present marvelled at its size and snapped photos, no one was allowed inside. As such, it was a tantalising, if somewhat unsatisfying, experience.
On Saturday, the A380 returned to Hong Kong, and this time a group of journalists (of which I was one) were invited on board for a brief flight û and hence became the first passengers from Asia to fly on the A380.
The flight number, 8968, was chosen by Lufthansa û which operated the flight û for its auspicious connotations, given the preponderance of æwealthyÆ 8s. And at the pre-boarding briefing, Lufthansa board member, Holger Haetty, spoke of how the A380 represented ôa leap of innovationö and described it as an ôecological aircraftö. He said it was the first long-haul plane that consumed less than three litres per passenger over 100km û versus an average for LufthansaÆs fleet of 4.4 litres.
And why was Hong Kong selected for Asia's debut passenger flight? Simple, said Ian Macdougall of Airbus. By 2025, Hong Kong will be the number one airport û by passenger volumes û for very large aircraft flights. ôSo it should be no surprise we chose to fly from here today,ö he said.
There may have been an ulterior motive too. Macdougall noted: ôThe A380 is 20% cheaper per seat to operate, and any airlines that donÆt have it and know other airlines with the A380 will be flying into their hubs are looking at this seriously.ö
The comment was obviously aimed at Cathay Pacific, which has not ordered any A380s. So flying the A380 out of Cathay's hub may well have been a move designed to get Cathay's attention (and orders). Many of its regional competitors, such as Qantas and Singapore Airlines, have order A380s. (Indeed, the first commercial A380 flight will occur in October, on Singapore Airlines.)
After a few questions from the assembled media, it was finally time to board the aircraft. No seats were assigned, and being one of the first to board, I turned left and sat in one of the 12 first class seats on the lower deck.
This ætestÆ aircraft, was configured to have 12 first class seats, 64 business class and 307 economy class û for a total of 519. This is considerably bigger than a Boeing 747, which averages 360 seats (the A380 has 50% more floor surface than a 747). However, Airbus executives did stress that the configuration used in this aircraft was just a ædevelopment and demonstration cabinÆ. Individual airlines could configure the number of seats, and classes, as they wished (although the upper limit on passenger seats is 853, according to Airbus).
This being a demonstration cabin, there was nothing disingenuously innovative about the design of first class. It looked much like any first class cabin û with staggered seats for privacy, and flat beds. One imagines Virgin û which has also ordered A380s û might do something a bit more funky with its premium class seats, perhaps installing a 32-inch LCD for each occupant.
We were asked at this point to turn on our screens, and this revealed an image of the plane, as seen from a camera on the tailfin. From this angle, the plane looked like a giant white dove as it edged away from the terminal. The captain announced it would be a one-and-a-half hour flight, in which we would fly about 200 miles south of Hong Kong and then return.
The take-off was surprisingly nimble û according to Airbus, the A380 requires 10% less runway to take-off than a 747. Everyone remained silent, albeit not in awe. All of us were trying to gauge whether the plane really was as quiet as Airbus claimed in its marketing materials. It was. Indeed, throughout the flight, most journalists I spoke to concurred that this was a much quieter aircraft. It also felt more stable û which is no doubt a function of its size.
When we got to cruising altitude, we were invited to walk around the plane at our leisure, and were informed that champagne and finger food would be available at the first-class bar. After 15 minutes of wandering, I went to the bar and struck up a conversation with the barman. I was curious how many bottles of champagne a plane full of journalists could get through in such a short time. The answer was 12 and he was still pouring at a pretty fast rate.
The bar was an area of more than passing interest for most of the journalists on the flight. When I had originally read about the A380, one of the first concept designs I had seen involved a large communal bar. The impression was of air travel returning to the glamorous era of the cruise ship, or the luxury train, complete with martini-shaking barmen. This bar, however, was pretty small, and was designed just to serve the 12 first-class passengers. Indeed, as I walked around the plane, it became evident that you would probably have to sacrifice too many (lucrative) seats to have a big communal bar area.
Actually it was a strange sensation to be in a (moving) aircraft in which practically no one was sitting down. Almost everyone was either walking around, or speaking into TV cameras. We were even allowed û one by one û to go into the cockpit. I guess we must have all passed our background security checks. In my case it was the first time I had been in a cockpit since childhood, and what struck me was its exceptionally modest size, especially given the size of the plane itself.
But I have to confess to having been most struck by the first-class washroom, thanks to the fact that the toilet seat was positioned directly below the window. For the male user you had the unusual sensation of looking into the passing cloud as you passed water; it felt a bit like using the famous urinals at Hong KongÆs Felix restaurant, except at 30,000 feet.
But what lies beyond first class? The A380 is split into two decks, with a main staircase at the front and a spiral staircase at the back. About two thirds of the upper deck was given over to business class seating. The business class area also had a couple of sofas where colleagues could presumably sit down and have a chat.
Of all the classes I saw, the biggest impact of the A380 looks likely to be in economy. The amount of shoulder space and legroom that it offers versus what is currently available was striking. On the legroom it was about four to five inches more spacious (from knee to seatback) and, when reclined, the position was comfortable. Of course, it is not guaranteed that this configuration will be used by all airlines, but if it is, and if you had to fly economy û there is no question you would choose to fly on an A380 over any existing plane today. And it should be cheaper too.
These investigations complete, we were informed that we would shortly be descending back into Hong Kong. A very gentle landing followed. This was all the more surprisingly given the amount of weight that was hitting the runway. This in itself, along with the planeÆs noise reduction, make the A380 an engineering feat to be reckoned with.
Airbus is calling this the plane of the 21st century and reckons it will be the perfect aircraft to deal with a world in which air passenger volumes will double within 15 years. But like many great technological leaps forward, the A380 has not been without its hiccups and controversy. It has obviously seen manufacturing delays û and symbolically enough our own flight was delayed by two hours while a minor part was replaced. My own view is that passengers will have a superior flying experience on the A380 versus any other plane on the market today. It may (or may not) bring back the glamour of flying û thanks to the addition of large communal areas, spas and so forth. But even if it doesnÆt, passengers of all classes should have a more spacious and quieter flying experience, and one less troubled with turbulence.
Of course, I qualify the last remark û if any airline chooses to put 853 seats onboard, the A380 will offer a pretty crowded experience. Certainly our test flight did not simulate what this would be like. I suspect it would be a lot less pleasant.