Stroll up the airbridge, pass through a cavernous door, then turn right up a wide stairway into a spacious lounge. Welcome on board the Airbus A380, the superjumbo that its makers hope will be the undisputed king of the skies for the next 30 years.
Last week, the plane made its first flight with members of the public — actually 200 journalists — as passengers.
First, the bad news. The A380 is not, as Airbus and Richard Branson would once have had you believe, an airborne amalgamation of Las Vegas and a luxury spa. The plane we flew on, kitted out with a representative interior and with some flight-test instrumentation still taped to the walls, had no casinos, gyms, showers or shops. Don’t expect any when the aircraft enters commercial service with Singapore Airlines at the end of the year, either.
In fact, at first, you’d struggle to tell the difference between the A380 and the ubiquitous Boeing 747. Apart from the A380’s wide, cruise-ship-style stairway at the front (and a smaller spiral staircase at the back), they are both big, wide planes, with 10-abreast seating in economy.
After a few minutes, however, the differences become apparent. Unlike the 747, the A380 has two decks running the full length of the aircraft — so you are never conscious of the extra passengers, as half of them are either above or below you, out of sight. And while the A380 is certified to carry 850 people, it will enter service with nothing like that number of seats on board. The airlines that have ordered it so far will fit 500 seats on average, with some going as low as 470. Most 747s have about 350 seats.
On the lower deck, which is where most airlines will put their economy class, the A380 is 20in wider at eye level than the 747. That will normally mean seats an inch wider — not a lot, but worth having on a long flight. The fuselage walls also slope out rather than in on this deck, giving a real feeling of spaciousness.
Best of all for those who despair of ever sleeping on long-haul flights, the A380 is quiet, noticeably quieter than current aircraft. Airbus claims it is 50% quieter than the 747 — a figure difficult to substantiate, but from a passenger’s point of view, it is definitely easier to converse and to relax. On takeoff, the engines emit a deep, subdued hum rather than the normal maximum-thrust scream.
In fact, most of the time, the A380 hides its bulk well. Its bulbous nose and fat fuselage are not that different from the outside from a 747, and the only obvious sign of its leviathan size is the wings. Those sitting behind the wing will be stunned by their width and their marked gull-wing curve.
Their gargantuan proportions give a clue as to Airbus’s plans for the plane’s development. Engineers have made sure it is strong enough not only for the first version of the plane, but for larger future variants. These will be the real giants, with stretched fuselages capable of carrying up to 1,000 passengers. We can only wait for the day when Ryanair gets hold of one.