It was the sort of invitation most people would avoid at allcosts: ‘Please come and spend two hours flying on a planethat seats 550 – and end up where you started.’ But I could barely contain my glee! Of course I accepted. It was aticket to ride on the Airbus A380 – nicknamed the Superjumbo– over the Pyrénées. I have covered the plane since itsconception, but this would be my first chance to experience what flying on board the behemoth was actually like. I wasnot alone – 200 other international journalists were equally eager for the experience.
First, let me state the obvious. With its twin decks, thisplane is big. Very big. In fact, it is enormous. The maindeck seats around 350 people, like a Boeing 747. However,upstairs there is room for another 200. That is effectivelyan A340 on top of a 747! The aircraft is equipped with firstclass, business class and economy seating. I sit behind thewing in economy. It is a good choice. We lift off – veryquietly for a plane of this size – and catch the crosswind.The wings’ ailerons waggle up and down in a demented stateas the computers fight to keep the plane stable. It feelslike a giant ocean liner on the waves. But then the take-offexcitement is over all too quickly and we settle into anamazingly smooth cruise flight. The landing is similar –from the plane’s camera we can see ourselves crabbingtowards the airport at Toulouse. Again, we ride the airwaves until we touch down.
So what makes the A380 so special? Is it the two grandstaircases? The 15 lavatories? The elevator that can movecarts between the decks? Or the fact that it can carry 550tons (considerably more than the 747)? It is all of thesethings and none of them. It is the fact that a new era ofair travel is upon us and no one really knows where it willlead. At the moment the A380 is a flying white whale. Withonly 166 sold, it is a long way from making Airbus anymoney.
But Airbus’ chief salesperson says the plane is a‘game-changing aircraft.’ Airbus forecasts the market forvery large planes at around 1,600 over the next 20 years andthis plane should get at least 800 orders. Since airportsare more congested and air travel is growing, demand formore seats between major hubs such as London and Hong Kong,or Singapore and Sydney will grow. That is where the A380comes in. (For the record, Boeing believes the Airbusnumbers are all wrong, that the demand will not materialize,the plane will lose money and airlines will opt instead fortheir revamped 747-8 Intercontinental with a comparativelymodest 470 seats.)
If airlines live up to their promises to put bars andlounges on board, the A380 could well become the standardfor luxury in the sky. It could change the way people wantto fly. Once the aircraft is in service on major oceanicroutes, frequent fliers will want to be on board. On theother hand, with so many people on one flight, suchirritations as luggage delays and congestion could causesome problems.
So will the A380 be a success? I know the arguments, and Istill cannot make up my mind. We do not know yet. Perhapshistory is our only guide; 30 years ago, people said exactlythe same things about another plane. It was too big. Therewere too many passengers. To step on board was to temptfate. That plane was the 747, which went on to sell morethan 1,300 for Boeing and became the standard for long-haulflight. Of the A380 experience, I can say, however, that theflight was simply wonderful. To walk up and down the twinstaircases, to visit the cockpit, to discover how quiet thisplane could be – it was a joy for an aviation geek like me.
Because of Airbus’ appalling delays, this first flight wasrescheduled many times. But I did not mind. I have now flownon the biggest passenger plane in the world. Unfortunately,I know it will be a long time before the rest of you get toshare the experience. But I have seen the future, and it is big.
Richard Quest anchors CNN’s European morning editionsof ‘Business International’, his own monthly interview show, ‘Quest’, and the monthly feature program ‘CNN Business Traveller’.