Can the A380 Bring the Party Back to the Skies?

Can the A380 Bring the Party Back to the Skies?

By my watch, the takeoff roll for Air France flight 380 lasted 35 seconds. “39 seconds,” corrected Laurent Bonnard, a French historian, as we chatted in a lounge area later. Either way, all the planiacs on board Air France’s inaugural A380 Airbus flight from New York City to Paris agreed the takeoff was a thing of beauty. Imagine an apartment building with wings that steps into the sky with the quiet grace of a ballet dancer. The lack of engine noise — it’s 50% quieter than a 747-400 on takeoff — was downright eerie. The A380 is so big it’s difficult to sense its speed, and its upper deck is so far away from the engines the noise dissipates.

The A380 is the largest airliner to ever part with the pavement: It can hold as many as 800 passengers in full sardine-can configuration, although Air France has mercifully limited the crowd to 535 in first, business and coach classes. In preparation for its entry into service in 2007, airports widened runways and hardened taxiways. Its catering trucks rise two stories off the ground to reach the galleys.

France’s national carrier got the debut of the Europe-built jet off with considerable lan. The flight leaving John F. Kennedy airport was packed with partying Francophiles, journalists and airline junkies. A band on board played “C’est Manifique” before takeoff and during the flight; birthdays were celebrated; the champagne flowed.

Air France is trying to bring back the party to the skies. There are six bars on the plane, which encourages passengers to mingle . In the front of the upper deck, in the business section, there’s even an art gallery of sorts: flatscreen TVs displaying digital previews of the New York and Paris cultural scenes, a somewhat lavish use of space.

The A380s standard coach seat is as good as it’s going to get in the claustrophobic calamity that is air travel. The chair is 19-in. wide, affording about 5% more room than on other jets on this route. There’s a 8.4 in. video screen with about 3,000 hours of programming, . Alex Hervert, an A380 design engineer, explained to me that he repositioned the hinge point on the chair back an inch higher so that your knees won’t get squeezed when the guy in front of you reclines his seat. Subtle LED lighting throughout the cabin changes with the time of day. But let’s not kid ourselves, it’s still a coach seat.

Business class travelers, ensconced in their designer flat-bed seats, face a full French press of everything that Gallic cuisiniers can throw at them: menus by three-star chef Alain Ducasse, vin extroadinaire, and of course the smugness of knowing you’re not in coach.

Like all new jetliners, the A380 was controversial in conception, delayed in construction and years late on arrival. But none could have predicted that the A380 would fly into the most turbulent economy in the history of aviation. Air France ordered a dozen of the $300 million aircraft in 2000, when the economic forecast called for steady growth. By the time Air France took delivery nine years later, the industry was on its knees and the big-spending investment bankers whose business- and first-class tickets make up the bulk of airline profits had largely evaporated.

Aircraft analyst Richard L. Aboulafia of Teal Group has called the A380 “the worst product launch decision since New Coke.” The A380 was born in a hub-and-spoke world where flights between countries were regulated. Now, airlines are freer to go point-to-point, avoiding the major hubs — and making 800-passenger mega-jets less necessary.

Analysts such as Aboulafia see a future that favors Boeing’s smaller, all-composite 787 . Airbus is already developing a new not-so-jumbo jet, the A350, for that purpose. But Air France CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon is sticking by his hub strategy. The skies are getting crowded, and he’d rather have the A380 to collect passengers in Paris from all over Europe and deliver them to places like New York and Johannesburg. “It’s just like the big cities today,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to add a lot of small cars. You need to add buses.”
To the jetizens aboard the A380 as it made a somewhat wobbly landing, some of whom have come from as far as Australia to be among the first to fly it, the arguments about economics and hub-and spoke miss the point. The Air France A380 is new, massive, filled with technology and right now the only one flying the Atlantic’s most glamorous route. It’s a glimpse of better days, when flying was still an adventure, even if it never ceases to be a chore.

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