Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "When Whales Fly"

For the new Airbus 380, size is all that matters. At 73 meters long, 24 meters high with a wingspan reaching 80 meters and an empty weight of nearly 280 metric tons, the so-called superjumbo eclipses its nearest competitor, the Boeing 747-400. Several meters longer, higher and wider, and 100 tons heavier, the A380 ends the B747-400’s reign of almost four decades as the world’s largest commercial airliner.

The new plane is Airbus’ multi-billion dollar bet that airlines need an advanced super-sized aircraft to carry a rapidly growing number of passengers between increasingly congested major airports, especially in Asia. A quick glance at the equipment list from Air China’s timetable between Beijing and Shanghai seems to prove the European plane-maker’s point. Air China (CA) deploys an impressive mix of B747, B767, B777 and A330 wide-bodies (with a few B737s thrown in) on this 90-minute hop everyday.

The combined cabin space for the A380 is some 550 square meters, the size of three tennis courts. What goes into this space is of course up to the individual airlines – and the bar has been set high by the first A380 operator, Singapore Airlines (SQ), an airline renowned for its cabin amenities and in-flight services. Although Airbus advertises the plane’s seating capacity as 525 in a typical three-class arrangement and 853 in a single-class configuration, SQ has opted for only 471 seats, creating a roomier environment.

The SQ A380 boasts a new “Beyond First Class” up front, offering each of its 12 highest-paying customers a mini-cabin fitted with a full-flat bed, a leather upholstered seat, a table and a 23-inch TV screen. For high-roller couples, two suites can be joined to provide a double bed for more intimacy under mood lighting – though SQ officials have publicly discouraged any mile-high-club activities.

Aviation enthusiasts derive their pleasure from simply riding on this sky liner. Many of them shelled out top dollar in an eBay charity auction for a place on the superjumbo’s maiden commercial flight on October 25, from Singapore to Sydney. A British dot-com billionaire forked out more than USD 100,000 for two suites and seated himself in 1A, although passengers in the 60 business and 399 economy seats spent less for their piece of history. If you want to experience the A380’s premium cabins anytime soon, however, be ready to pay a premium as SQ will remain the sole operator until the summer of 2008.

Closer to home, China Southern (CZ) is the only Chinese carrier with an A380 order. The first of CZ’s five superjumbos is not expected to join its fleet until 2009, but airline officials have promised same fare for its A380 flights, thanks to lower operational costs from increased capacity and fuel efficiency. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 42 of the December 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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