ABOARD THE AIRBUS A380 -- There are no caterwauling babies on this test flight of the world's newest and biggest airliner. Absent, too, are the slumped shoulders and ashen countenance of the typical long-haul passenger, wedged into an aluminum tube for hours on end as it hurtles toward a destination a continent away.
On this week's trip from Frankfurt to New York, Taittinger Champagne flows like water as 460 high-spirited guinea pigs, along with 31 crew members from Airbus and Lufthansa, put what has been billed as the "cruise ship of the sky" through its paces before commercial service launches on Singapore Airlines late this year. The plane made another stop in Chicago, and lands at Washington Dulles airport Sunday.
Shadowed by more than 60 reporters and photographers, passengers rate the seat-back entertainment systems, cabin lighting (it changes colors to mimic day and night) and air quality (which offers more humidity than standard cabins). They clamber to the upper deck on a staircase wide enough for two or three passengers standing side by side. They belly up to a curved bar, and marvel over a tail-mounted camera beaming real-time views of the fuselage and curved wings so massive that 70 cars could park atop each one. Wide-eyed passenger Christian Ernst, a Lufthansa co-pilot on the behemoth's baby cousin, the A318, jokes, "My entire wing is almost as big as these flaps," the hinged sections that spread downward on takeoff and landing.
Takeoff is smooth and surprisingly swift; the A380 requires less runway space than a Boeing 747. But shortly after Lufthansa's flight attendants complete the first meal service, coach passengers on the capacious main deck encounter a rude reality check. "A queue for the loo," one flier sighs as she stands in a line stretching 12 deep for a cluster of lavatories. (The entire aircraft holds 15.) "Some things never change."
In the cutthroat world of commercial aviation, however, change is constant.
Announced in 2000, Airbus' A380 was designed to satisfy airline demand for more passenger capacity on long-haul routes. It can carry as many as 853 coach passengers (or, more typically, 555 in a three-class configuration) vs. the 747's top three-class load of 416, and does so with greater fuel efficiency and significantly lower noise levels both inside and outside the aircraft.
But the supersized jet has been hobbled by lengthy production delays, management shakeups at Airbus and a growing chorus of curmudgeons claiming the over-budget big bird may be another Concorde, the flashy game-changer that was a commercial flop.
The A380 is "somewhere between hubristic and outright folly," says aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia of The Teal Group, adding it could be relegated to "a footnote in aviation history."
"I still need someone to tell me if this plane is going to make a positive difference in my life," says NBC Today travel editor Peter Greenberg, ensconced in a business-class seat on an upper deck as wide as the cabin of Airbus' twin-aisle A340. Like other skeptics, he questions whether strained airports can handle so many fliers descending at once on gate areas, immigration counters and baggage carousels.
Of course, he says, "the jury is still out."
Flights of fancy grounded
Early discussions about the A380 -- with about 1.5 times the floor space of a 747, two passenger decks running the length of the aircraft, and a cavernous hold -- included such fanciful possibilities as beauty parlors, waterfalls, gyms and shopping arcades. When the plane made its official debut in Airbus' home base of Toulouse, France, two years ago, Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson boasted that his A380 passengers would have "two ways to get lucky" -- in an on-board casino or an airborne double bed. (Virgin has since delayed its orders to 2013.)
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