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January 9, 2008

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Where's Marc ...                 Aboard the A380



  • Airbus
  • Cranky Flier

Airbus A380: Back at LAX
The much-anticipated, much-talked-about Airbus A380 makes another appearance in Los Angeles, but is she worth all the fuss?
By Marc D. Meredith

When I went out to cover the historic arrival of the A380 in Los Angeles last March, the story was pretty clear. Whether you were Airbus, Qantas, LAX, a reporter or just a plane fanatic, seeing this new "super jumbo" was the story. The last time a plane this big came to town for its inaugural visit, Nixon was in the White House.

The A380 came back to town in late November, 2007 and I went out to see her again. But what was the story this time? For Airbus, it was showing off its now operational plane (Singapore took delivery in October of one aircraft). For Qantas, it was continuing the theme of "we'll do this first in LA." For LAX, it was about demonstrating that the airport was ready and for most of the reporters present, it was about challenging that assumption. My story was simple: I just wanted to get inside and take a look around!

Waiting for the A380 to arrive, there were many questions about the impact she would have on travel safety and congestion. LAX spokesman Michael DiGirolamo declared the airport ready. Apart from creating an extra five miles of follow distance (the next plane was 25 miles behind it, rather than the typical 20), to account for the additional wake turbulence that the A380 generates, he said he did not expect any impact on airport operations. "This plane is now part of the airspace system," DiGirolamo said. "We handle more 747s than any other airport in the United States. We're used to big planes and the A380 was one of the reasons for widening [runway] 25L."

The first thing I noticed when the plane touched down was how quiet it was. It was the largest plane at the airport and yet it made less noise than a 737 when it arrived. The A380 looks like a bird when it reaches the runway, her wings flex and the effect is more like settling gently onto the ground rather than dropping onto it. 747s are graceful when they land as well but by comparison, still seem rigid. The A380 appears more animate, like a living organism rather than a piece of machinery.

Taxiing into its temporary home, the plane passed right in front of an Eva Air 747 and it was then that the true size difference became apparent. The A380 seemed to swallow the other plane whole before coming to a stop.

Among the people who deplaned and came over to the media pool were Allan McArtor, Chairman of Airbus North America Holdings, Inc., Wally Mariami, Senior Executive Vice President of Qantas Airways and Captain Murray Crockett, who flew the plane from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.

"I'm delighted to be at LAX, the flagship for the next generation in aviation history," was Allan McArtor's opening statement. He said that LAX will have "the largest concentration of A380s of any airport in the US." He was also quick to point out that the plane that had arrived that day was different from the one last March, which apparently had little more than ballast on the inside. This one, an MSN007, is outfitted with three classes of service totaling 519 seats on the two decks.

Wally Mariami was effusive about his participation in the day's events though quite cagey about the seating configuration and other interior features of the first Qantas A380, offering only that it would be "the best flight product in the sky." When asked when the first scheduled flight would be, he responded "around this time next year," meaning around November 2008.

Captain Murray Crockett, in responding to a question about what thoughts were going through his mind during final approach replied that while he stole a glance at downtown, his focus was on landing the plane safely. His first words when that happened? "Thank God." Capt. Crockett is the first Qantas pilot to fly the A380 and deemed it a "delight to fly." He suggested that this is the plane of the future and that it was easier to handle than many others he has flown.

That was all fine and good but I kept looking past them at the open cabin door, impatient to walk up those stairs and take a peek.

After securing the perimeter around the plane and working out some logistics, officials finally started calling people up in small groups for a tour. Just as if we were going on a flight, each person had a boarding pass. It was announced that 400 people were going to see the cabin in less than three hours so I was feeling pretty good about holding pass number 31.

Walking out to the plane provided me with a better sense of how tall the A380 actually is. At just under 80 feet, it's a long way to look back down the jet bridge. Once inside the plane, my first thoughts were that it looks, well ... big! The ceiling height reminded me of a 777 but of course, this time there were two decks this large.

First class is right behind the forward doors on the main deck. Having seen pictures of the first class suites on the Singapore A380, the only thing that these ones have in common are that that there are 12 of them. Mind you, flat beds, a seat for a friend and lots of storage are all good features for any first class but were this interior part of a commercial fleet, it would not live up to the hype.

Our guide was Flight Engineer Patrick Du Che. Before taking us through the different seating areas he gave us a run down. There are: 12 seats in first class, 64 in business (all upstairs), 106 in premium economy and 307 in economy. As a "cabin test plane" this aircraft is being used to evaluate all the interior functions during flight with passengers on board. Du Che pointed out several recording instruments located throughout the plane, feeding data into a control center on the upper deck.

After leaving first class, we made our way through the economy section, which is configured in a 3-4-3 layout. This section of the plane feels cavernous but then I pictured this area with a couple hundred passengers and all their stuff ... and that impression diminished a bit. Sitting down, I noticed that the seat feels slightly larger than your typical seat and there is definitely more legroom. The overhead storage is good but not amazing.

Having never been on the upper deck of a 747, it's when we head up the spiral back stairs that the inside of the A380 really begins to feel different to me. Walking into the second deck creates a deja vu moment. Here, we find the economy plus section and business class, a "lounge" area, (which is really two couches next to a beverage station) and my favorite surprise feature of the plane -- a loo with a view!

Returning to the main deck via the wide front stairway, we are given a chance to step inside the cockpit, a rare opportunity on any plane these days. The layout is clean and sufficiently complex that I am reminded how much technology is involved in modern jets. The captain who greets us is jovial and seems excited to take the controls when this A380 welcomes passengers for a demonstration flight the next day.

Walking down the jet bridge after the all-too-brief tour, I wished I could be on the plane when it took off the next morning. While that did not happen, I was able to connect with Brett Snyder, who did have a seat. He writes the excellent travel blog The Cranky Flier and shared some of his observations:

On taking off
"We turned on to the runway and I had my seatback video tuned to the camera in the tail pointing forward. The engines spooled up and we were soon barreling down the runway."

"As we continued to climb, I just kept focusing on the massive, heaving wing. It is a truly incredible structure and probably the thing about the A380 that impresses me the most. Just an amazing work of art."

In flight
"The thing I hear most about this plane is how quiet it is. From where I was sitting, it certainly seemed quiet, but you still know you're on an airplane. I went upstairs ... it was a bit quieter up there. Yet another reason to sit on the upper deck."

On landing
"I'm glad I picked this seat, because I had a nice view of Anacapa and Santa Cruz Islands before we passed right over LAX."

The A380 returns to LAX next fall when Qantas starts its commercial service and I plan to be on hand for that. In the meantime, I'm still marveling at this plane that is such a contradiction: bigger than anything, yet quieter than almost everything. A plane with many admirers, but few suitors. With under 200 firm orders, none by US carriers, it remains an open question whether this plane will truly become the standard for the future or if it will find a place alongside the Concorde ... another innovative marvel that never found viability in getting people from point A to point B. We'll just have to wait and see.

Marc took his first airplane ride at 13 months and he's been flying ever since. When he is not planning his next trip, he is the Dean of Admissions at Otis College of Art and Design, which just happens to be right next door to LAX...

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Pics From The Trip


The A380 parked at LAX


"Swallowing the 747"


Wally Mariami, Senior VP at Qantas


Captain Murray Crockett flew the A380 to Los Angeles


Waiting for visitors


You can't board without one of these!


Coach class is laid out in a 3-4-3 configuration on the main deck


First class


Instruments were placed throughout the plane for testing


Flight Engineer Patrick Du Che demonstrates the cabin testing equipment


The little village


Overhead storage


Heading up the back stairway


Reporter checks out the Business Class seats


Coming down the main stairway


The A380's cockpit


Marc D. Meredith


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