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.)
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
From an environmental perspective, the A380's delayed debut comes at an opportune time. With the Bishop of London declaring last summer that flying on holiday was a "symptom of sin" because of carbon emissions, the new airliner might be called the ultimate form of carpooling. It is 20% more fuel-efficient than its largest rival, getting about 80 passenger miles a gallon, or about as much gas per passenger, per mile, as a Ford Taurus with three people on board. Its four Rolls-Royce engines emit about half the noise of the 747.
"The A380 naysayers are making way too much" of the challenges facing the new jet, Hamilton says. "All the problems they have today were raised about the 747, too. I have no doubt there are going to be hiccups here and there, but it'll work out, just like it did nearly 40 years ago."
Says Robert van der Linden, curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: "As a passenger, I don't want to go through a hub, and I don't know anyone who does. But people vote with their wallets." In the final analysis, "most passengers don't have any idea what kind of aircraft they're flying on, and they don't care. It's 'get me home, on time, and do it for as little money as possible.'"
For all the promises, uncertainties and unanswered questions about the $319 million A380, it remains a huge gamble for the company behind it, and the proof is playing out on the seat-back videos aboard the plane's inaugural jaunt to the USA.
In a documentary about the making of the airliner, Airbus marketing chief John Leahy goes out on a limb as long as the A380's wingspan.
"This cannot be a failure," Leahy declares. "This isn't 'We almost got there' or 'Not too shabby.' Either this is going to be that flagship of the 21st century, or it's going to be a disaster." By the numbers
Price tag of an Airbus A380
1.24 million pounds
Maximum takeoff weight
Length of wiring throughout the plane, the distance from New York City to Pittsburgh
Lower fuel-burn per seat than the Boeing 747-400
Less noise than the 747-400
Source: Airbus, USA TODAY research