Fans of the A380 Forecast Blue Skies, but Critics Predict Turbulence

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...

But aside from a few gee-whiz features such as roomy lavatories with windows and twin couches on the upper deck, the interior of this demonstration A380 looks like a regular plane, albeit one on steroids. In the main deck coach class, which is compartmentalized to avoid a bowling alley feel, seating is 3-4-3. Seats are 18 inches wide (about an inch wider than on a typical 747), with a 33-inch pitch. That's generous by international standards, but still cramped enough to generate annoyed glances when a seat back is fully reclined.

Airbus has orders for 156 super jumbos from 14 carriers (none of them U.S.-based), and each airline will make its own cabin modifications. While the details remain closely guarded secrets, history suggests practicality will trump fantasy: Early promotions for the 747, which came out in 1970, included a movie theater and a Tiger Lounge, complete with skin-covered couches. A few airlines used the 747's iconic hump for piano bars, but they quickly gave way to the airline industry imperative: bottoms in seats.

That imperative, says London-based airline expert Peter Knapp of global branding consultants Landor Associates, represents the A380's greatest strength -- and its biggest weakness. Rival Boeing champions the idea of smaller planes flying point to point on international routes and is pumping the high-tech virtues of its midsized 787 Dreamliner, due in 2008. But Airbus sees a different future for long-haul travel.

With international air passenger traffic expected to double over the next 15 years from last year's total of about 2.2 billion, particularly in Asia and the Middle East, the A380's "scale is its virtue, because it will take a lot of people at one go," Knapp says.

"But if you're traveling at 40,000 feet," he adds, "you're not looking to be the first lab rat. You're looking for something you already know. There's a tipping point where you say, 'I don't want to be part of a huge village.' But if they can get the basics right, I think people will get used to it."

Many of those basics, Knapp acknowledges, are beyond the new airliner's control: "The pushback on the ground infrastructure will be significant," he says. "If two of these come in at the same time, it will completely change the equation."

Airports are investing millions to get ready for the A380 and other new jumbo aircraft. (Boeing's stretched passenger version of the 747 is due in 2010.)

For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has spent more than $180 million to strengthen bridges and taxiways at John F. Kennedy International, while individual terminals are building special jet bridges that can transfer passengers from both upper and lower decks.

Los Angeles International hosted its own A380 test flight arrival this week and will be the first U.S. airport to have regular A380 service when Qantas launches flights next year. It's spending about $120 million to get ready for the A380 and the upcoming 747-8, and is modernizing its cramped international terminal.

On the test flight from Frankfurt to JFK, the first to approximate actual operating conditions in the air and on the ground, the odds seem stacked in Airbus' favor. In the Frankfurt airport -- where thousands of spectators waited for hours and paid nearly $5 each to see the giant parked jet, passengers board smoothly via three new jet bridges, settling into their seats in about 30 minutes. Officials at Lufthansa, which has ordered 15 A380s and will start service in 2009, say they anticipate a 90-minute airport turnaround, typical for that of a 747.

At JFK, where the A380's landing was scheduled well before the afternoon crunch of international arrivals, passengers are greeted at Terminal One by fully staffed immigration booths. It takes just 55 minutes for all passengers and crew to clear immigration and customs and collect checked bags (a limit of one per person).

Richard Marchi of the trade group Airports Council International-North America says its A380 study group has recommended that airlines flying the super jumbos distribute checked bags at two carousels, one for economy and one for premium passengers. As for potential snafus at usually understaffed immigration booths, "we're not sanguine," Marchi says.

"The real problem isn't whether it's an A380 or a DC-3," says aviation consultant Scott Hamilton of Issaquah, Wash.-based Leeham Co. Airport screening and baggage handling are "in the dumper, and a big part of that problem is the TSA" (Transportation Security Administration).

Quieter and more fuel-efficient

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