You might recall it was just about a year ago that we were all abuzz over Singapore Airlines’ commencement of Los Angeles-Singapore nonstops. Inauguration of the 18-hour, 7,600 nautical mile megahaul was celebrated in a column last February. A few months too soon, perhaps. Never one to rest on its laurels, Singapore shattered its own record by unveiling a Newark-Singapore route in summer, 2004. Both pairings take advantage of the ultra-long legs of the Airbus A340-500, which the carrier nicknames the “A345.” Newark-Singapore stands as the world’s longest-ever scheduled commercial flight, and is likely to hold the crown for some time, perhaps until somebody is bold enough to announce the once unimaginable, now inevitable, New York-Sydney run.
We’re not quite there yet, technologically. While the A340-500 has the longest endurance of any existing jetliner, Boeing’s 777-200LR, set to launch with Pakistan International and Taiwan’s Eva Air in 2006, will trump the Airbus by a thousand miles or so, able to connect virtually every major city pair on earth.
You’re probably wondering about the A380, the new Airbus Uberjumbo rolled out to much fanfare this week in Toulouse, France. Baseline model of the double-decked behemoth will have legs for about 8,000 nautical miles. Naturally, perhaps, first in line for the A380 is Singapore Airlines. Initial deployment will be to London and Sydney in the second quarter of 2006.
Regulars to these pages know of my ambivalence toward the A380, and the much awaited uncurtaining was something I’d anticipated with equal measures of excitement and clenched teeth. First and foremost the plane is ugly — a ponderous giant with none of the elegance of the Boeing 747, the airliner it will soon supplant as world’s biggest after a 35-year reign. And while the A380’s assorted superlatives and technological innovations are certainly worthy of marvel (it will be the first civil transport with a gross maximum takeoff weight exceeding a million pounds) accolades like “revolutionary” are undue.
When the 747 debuted with Pan Am in 1970, it was over twice the size of its largest existing competitors, the single-aisle Douglas DC-8 and Boeing 707, and was able to carry three times the number of passengers. By comparison the A380 will outlift the 747-400, its closest rival, by only about 30 percent, over roughly equal distances. “[With] a tail as tall as a seven-story building…” gushed an Associated Press reporter from the party in Toulouse. Incredible, yes. And but one story taller than the 64-foot fin of the 747. Unlike the venerable Boeing, or for that matter the Concorde, there’s nothing so fundamentally radical about the A380.
The plane’s most impressive aspects aren’t its girth and power, but its architecture and onboard systems. With dual auxiliary power units and multiple fail-safe components, Airbus has built an aircraft almost guaranteed never to cancel or divert. With several hundred passengers aboard and a limited number of airports able to accept A380 operations, near perfect reliability will be crucial.
Those airport restrictions, by the way, are mainly a function of logistics — gate and terminal space, loading equipment, etc — and not runway limits. The ship’s average landing speed will be no different from that of the A320 (about 145 knots), a fifth of its size, and under most conditions will require less runway than a 747.
A typical three-class arrangement offers seating for approximately 540 people, and fuselage mockups have proposed extravagances like bars, duty-free boutiques and nurseries. Such frills, argue cynics, are bound to go the way of those piano lounges found in the upper decks of the original 747, destined to be swapped out for additional rows of seats (an all-economy A380 would have room for 800 passengers, versus about 580 for the highest-density version of the 747.)
Chances are that’s overly pessimistic, for the trend these days is toward increasingly swanky perks, particularly in the premium cabins. The 747 emerged in a time when flights rarely exceeded about nine hours duration. With 14, 15, even 18 hour trips now commonplace, the art of perfecting long-haul satisfaction needs a higher, more permanent standard. Boutiques and spas may be wishful thinking, but in an era when fully-flat sleepers have become de rigueur even in business class, you can expect luxurious, cutting-edge amenities in the forward rows. And a modicum of improvements in the back as well. Economy is planned as a ten-abreast layout, just as you’ll encounter on 747s. With a cabin width about 13 inches greater overall, that gives the traveler 1.3 additional inches per seat. Not to mention the economy class frills now supplied by many top carriers — on-demand seatback video, ergonomically sculpted chairs, head and foot rests, etc.
The A380 order book (Airbus list price of $280 million per aircraft):
Singapore Airlines: 10
Air France: 10
Malaysia Airlines: 6
Virgin Atlantic: 6
Thai Airways: 6
Korean Air: 5
Etihad Airways: 4
Qatar Airways: 2
Excepting FedEx, whose freighter variant of the leviathan will be ready for market in 2008, no North American carriers have submitted orders or options. This isn’t the time, I suppose, as the seven largest US airlines recently posted a combined net loss of $1.3 billion for the third quarter of 2004. That’s the busy summer period, historically the industry’s most profitable stretch. Passenger loads have been back to pre-September 11th levels for over a year now, but $50 per barrel oil prices, owing in large part to the Iraq War, have ensured mounting losses. Southwest and Alaska Airlines were the only US carriers in the black last summer. Even JetBlue’s profits plunged 70 percent for the period.
Financial plight aside, however, there’s some rousing news on the home front:
Just after 10 p.m. on December 10th, a United Airlines 747 touched down at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City — the former Saigon — heralding a return of US airline service to Vietnam for the first time in almost 30 years. As passengers and dignitaries descended stairs to the tarmac, women in traditional ao-dais costumes presented gifts of lotus flowers and lanterns. Chapter 11 be damned, United flights 862/869 will operate daily between Ho Chi Minh and Hong Kong. From HKG, the carrier’s onward nonstops serve San Francisco, Chicago and Tokyo. Predictions call for 11 percent annual growth in US-Vietnam passenger traffic.
Even more exciting, Continental Airlines announced it will soon introduce flights from its Newark hub to Lagos, Nigeria. Scheduled for June, 2005, this will mark the first service of a US passenger airline to any destination in Africa since Delta pulled out of Cairo in late 2001. No American entity has flown to any sub-Saharan point since Pan Am’s routes (to Monrovia, Dakar, Nairobi and elsewhere) were abandoned prior to that airline’s collapse in 1991. Continental also will become the only US company operating to six continents, a distinction it will share with numerous foreign counterparts.
New York-Lagos, which would not have garnered my wager as a likely candidate for such a premier, is considered a highly lucrative market. “Our Lagos service will be highly attractive to Nigerian and American transatlantic travelers,” said Continental’s CEO Larry Kellner in a statement. “Particularly executives in energy-related industries.” The route was previously covered by the long embattled Nigeria Airways, which finally closed its doors in 2003.
Nigeria, by the way, was ranked the world’s third most corrupt nation by a watchdog organization called Transparency International. The group says 40 percent of the country’s petroleum income is stolen or squandered by government corruption and mismanagement. Allegedly — though I can’t confirm this — one of the reasons British Airways once suspended London-Lagos flights was because its airplanes were routinely stripped of equipment, including galley supplies, furnishings, and even cockpit electronics, during layovers. Rumors say armed guards will accompany crew and passengers on Continental’s flights from Newark.
This article is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.