The world’s largest airliner takes to the sky

“Rumor has it the archaeologists who figured out the Rosetta Stone practiced for years on preflight weather packets donated by TWA.”

That’s a line from a week ago, illustrating a point about the bewildering complexity of FAA weather transcriptions used by pilots. It also was a joke. As recognized by a handful of savvy readers, the Rosetta Stone — the slab of ancient basalt that gave up the secrets of Egyptian hieroglyphs — was deciphered by Jean-François Champollion in 1822, predating Trans World Airlines by a good hundred years. A little journalistic hyperbole in the name of humor.

A different sort of hyperbole has been making the media rounds of late, and whether or not you’re an aerophile or otherwise predisposed to industry headlines, the puffery has been tough to avoid. Yes, I’m talking about the first flight of the Airbus A380. Everyone from Fox News to the Christian Science Monitor has had a hand in the pomp and circumstance of the beastly behemoth’s inaugural voyage from Toulouse-Blagnac on April 27th. A short perusal of articles, headlines, and blogs takes in accolades like these:

“a magical moment”
“the most anticipated flight since Concorde leapt from the pavement in1969”
“gargantuan double-decked superjumbo”
“wings wider than a football field”
“very moving indeed”
“straight into the history books”

Oh the humanity. Over on Airbus.com they’re channeling Neil Armstrong. Click on over to hear the “FIRST WORDS OF CHIEF TEST PILOT JACQUES ROSAY.”

Always ahead of its time, ASK THE PILOT’s opinions of the big new plane, somewhat less effusive, have been duly recorded in past articles. But since I’m being pressed on all sides to offer up some commentary now that the thing has finally flown, let’s recap:

The launch of the A380 is indeed a milestone in the sense that after 35 years somebody finally built an aircraft larger then Boeing’s venerable 747. The shame is that they’ve done so with minimal regard to aesthetic. For all its brawn, the 747 remains on a par with Concorde as an unmistakable icon of industrial design. Unmistakable in a good way: it’s a dignified plane whose girth is blended and sculpted by sophisticated, well-bred lines. The 747, you could say, carries itself well. The ponderous, beluga-headed Airbus, while providing TV documentary makers with an endless supply of statistical bullet points, has none of the Boeing’s grace or civility.

If nothing else it’s large, and the layperson’s seminal question seems to be this one: How can a plane weighing 1,235,000 pounds actually fly? Well, the cranky pilot’s response is that pretty much anything can be made to fly if given enough lift and thrust. The A380 has tremendous amounts of both, with a high-tech wing — augmented by huge flaps and slats — able to perform advantageously in both high-speed and low-speed realms. In many circumstances it will have a shorter takeoff roll than jetliners of less weight and size. Several airports are undergoing expensive modification projects in time for the A380’s arrival, but mostly these changes pertain to taxiway and apron clearance, and gate space. Though only 14 feet longer than a 747, those high-tech wings make for a span about 50 feet wider. At London-Heathrow, $800 million is being spent on terminal and tarmac improvements, including double-decker boarding bridges. In Dubai, Emirates, whose order for 45 A380s leads all other airlines, is devising a dual-level boarding system as well.

So, yes, it’s big. But it’s not that big, relatively speaking. As a passenger liner, the A380 is first to break the million-pound takeoff threshold (Russia’s oversized Antonov, the An-225, is heavier, though is not used commercially), but we shouldn’t forget that when Pan Am’s Clipper Victor lifted off for Heathrow in 1970, it offered double the weight and capacity of its closest rival. The A380 will have a maximum weight roughly 30 percent greater than the heaviest variant of the 747.

As the first-ever widebody, the 747’s economies of scale permanently and dramatically altered the dynamic of intercontinental air travel. The plane promised twice the capacity of a 707 or DC-8, with 30 percent lower operating costs. Suddenly, several hundred passengers could cross the oceans at affordable fares. Now comes the A380, and suddenly… several hundred passengers can cross the oceans at affordable fares. To wit, Joe Sharkey, writing in the New York Times, cites an Airbus boast that the A380 “will forever change the face of long-distance travel, making it easier and cheaper to fly 500 or more passengers to far-flung major airports.” That may as well be Juan Trippe, founder of Pan Am, talking about his bubble-topped Boeing circa ’69. Except in Trippe’s case it really meant something (and without Trippe’s vision and commitment the 747 might never have existed). Fact is, there’s nothing overly radical going on here, save for some added tonnage and a fancy double-wide staircase.

[As something of an aside: with unprecedented underfloor capacity and containerized loading, the 747 revolutionized air cargo much the way it revolutionized passenger travel. Today, some airlines derive 30 percent of revenues from their lower-deck freight holds. The A380’s underfloor space will be roughly equal to the 747’s. Airbus steals the show here not with the A380, but with the A340-600. In service with several Asian and European airlines, this four-engine widebody offers main-deck seating comparable to the Boeing jumbo, but with twice the cargo stowage.]

Much has been made of the A380s ultimate capability to transport upwards of 900 passengers, but don’t expect such configurations to be common. Just as the 747 can hold more than 600 people, none actually do. The industry maximum, used by Japan’s All Nippon Airways, is 569, and these particular ships are used primarily on short-haul, high-density domestic runs. Any A380s laid out to full advantage would exist in very limited numbers, allocated for charters or niche services. Most of the plane’s customers — Singapore Airlines and Emirates will be first to put the plane into scheduled service, in 2006 — propose a floor plan of about 550 seats in three classes, versus about 420 in a typical three-class 747. Qantas plans to go with 501 seats. Air France says 476, which is notably fewer seats than in some existing 747 schemes.

These more sensible numbers help debunk the notion that that such a large, high-profile aircraft makes an unacceptably temping target for terrorists. Any accident involving an A380 has the potential for unprecedented fatality totals, but that’s assuming worst case and a full load. There will be plenty of 747s, A340s, and 777s in the air carrying no fewer souls than many A380s.

Trendsetters like Virgin Atlantic intend to embellish their new flagships with all manner of luxurious onboard novelties: saunas, shops, gyms, casinos, showers and nurseries. Cynics who remember the short-lived upper deck piano bars on early 747s see this as so much giddy fantasy, but in truth the emphasis on premium cabin amenities is likely here to stay. In today’s long-haul markets, where first and business class passengers are crucial sources of profit, there’s little sense in jamming a cabin to its absolute limit. Moreover, when the 747 came of age in the 1970s, the lengthiest flights rarely exceeded 10-12 hours. Today, with trips routinely pushing 14, 15, even 18 hours, there’s only so much tedium and deep vein thrombosis an airline can dish out before passengers snap — or sue. Virgin already outfits planes with novelties such as a sit-down bar and onboard massage service; Singapore’s A340s include a buffet bar and socializing area. Look for more of these innovations, not fewer.

All in all, riding on the A380 won’t be terribly different from riding on a present-day long-hauler. It’ll be posh and exclusive up front, and a slog in economy. Except, actually, less of a slog than we’re used to: with economy rows set at ten-abreast, the A380 provides about an inch and half more elbow room per seat than a 747. Meanwhile, the plane’s customer base is made up almost exclusively of world-class names like Singapore, Virgin, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines et al. These carriers take economy class more seriously than do their struggling American counterparts or the average low-fares upstart. An economy class trip on the likes of Singapore Airlines is not, by even the most fantastic stretch, comparable to one on Southwest or Ryanair, and rest assured that a seat in row 65 will feature a personal entertainment system, foot rest, decent food, and maybe even a smile from your multilingual flight attendant.

So the A380 is oversized, homely, decadent. In that regard it would seem a very American thing — gluttonous and obtrusive in the fashion of a sport utility vehicle. Airports are upgrading jetways and taxiways much the way parking lots have been obliged to widen their lanes for SUVs. Yet ironically there’s almost nothing American about the A380. It’s manufactured and sold by a European consortium while, to date, of the 150 or so orders placed, none belong to any US passenger airline (freighter versions are headed to FedEx and UPS). Considering the financial devastation at our largest carriers, this won’t be changing any time soon. Here in the United States, even the 747, itself markedly more popular in other countries, is an endangered bird found only in the colors of United, Northwest, and a handful of cargo operators (worldwide, to many people’s surprise, the 747 outscores both the 767 and 757 in total number).

Let’s keep it brief on the war of words between Airbus and Boeing over whether the A380 makes economic sense. It’s a tedious and pointless (for now) argument: Boeing sees an ill-conceived bust in too small a market. Airbus, having poured $13 billion into the project, scoffs at Boeing’s fuselage envy and predicts a bright future. On paper, the A380 has a mild range advantage over the 747, and a 20 percent lower per-passenger operating cost (fuel efficiency is a strongpoint, forecast at about 95 miles per gallon per passenger). Impressive, but some analysts say a minimum of 500 need to be sold — at a sticker price of $282 million each — before Airbus can recoup its investment. It’ll be a daunting task, but keep in mind the 747 was pooh-poohed by skeptics as well, and got off to a terrible start. During a three year span in the 1970s, not a single 747 order was placed. Three decades later, over 1,300 have been delivered and production continues.

The Largest Commercial Passanger Planes
per max allowable takeoff weight

1. Airbus A380
1,235,000 pounds (heavier derivatives planned)

2. Boeing 747 (series 400ER)
910,000 pounds

3. Airbus A340 (series 600)
837,800 pounds

4. Boeing 777 (Series 300ER)
775,000 pounds

5. McDonnell Douglas MD-11
630,500 pounds

All the Width That’s Fit to Print: The World’s Widebody Jetliners, Old and New
(date of service entry and launch customer)

1. Boeing 747 (1970, Pan Am)
2. McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (1971, American)
3. Lockheed L-1011 (1972, Eastern)
4. Airbus A300 (1974, Air France)
5. Ilyushin Il-86 (1980, Aeroflot)
6. Boeing 767 (1982, United)
7. Airbus A310 (1983, Lufthansa)
8. McDonnell Douglas MD-11 (1990, Finnair)
9. Ilyushin Il-96 (1993, Aeroflot)
10. Airbus A340 (1993, Lufthansa)
11. Airbus A330 (1994, Air Inter)
12. Boeing 777 (1995, United)
13. Airbus A380 (projected 2006, Singapore Airlines)


This Q&A 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.