Airlines: New Super Plane One Step Closer to Takeoff

Airbus successfully evacuated 853 people acting as passengers from its super-jumbo A380, the biggest passenger plane ever built. The test was a critical milestone in the process of certifying the plane as safe to begin commercial service.

Airbus declared it a "great success" even though one man broke a leg and 32 others suffered minor injuries sliding down evacuation chutes.

The test was conducted in a darkened hangar at an Airbus test facility in Hamburg, Germany. Eighteen flight attendants from Lufthansa, an airline which has ordered the A380, managed the evacuation.

The Federal Aviation Administration and safety organizations from other countries require than an aircraft manufacturer show any new plane can be evacuated in 90 seconds before it will be certified to enter service. Airbus said the complete evacuation took just 80 seconds even though half of the double-decker plane's 16 exits were blocked to simulate crash conditions.

The evacuation test was the first ever tried with the A380 and involved the most passengers ever in such a test. That it was successful the first time came as a something of a surprise to airline executives and journalists who cover the industry.

"We were very happy with this result" said Charles Champion, chief operating officer for Airbus, in a bit of understatement.

Gyms? Casinos? Dining Areas?

While 853 people were loaded aboard the plane for the test, no airline that has ordered the A380 plans to carry that many. Singapore Airlines, which will be the first to put the plane in regular service, will carry about 500 passengers, in a three-class (economy, business and first) configuration.

Just how the huge plane will be configured by its customers, however, is a secret.

Emirates, which will be the second carrier to fly the plane, may carry as many as 650 passengers on regional routes in the Middle East and in South Asia. Others, like Lufthansa, Air France, Virgin Atlantic and Quantas have been mum on their plans.

Most companies plan to carry the 555 passengers recommended by Airbus, or even fewer. At 555, that's 35 percent more than today's versions of the 747.

While there was much talk in the beginning about gyms and casinos, it's unlikely there will be anything more unique than a pub or sit-down dining area on board (though one airline still is talking about a waterfall). Showers remain a possibility as do open spaces for passengers on long flights.

It might be enough if there are wider seats, more legroom and space to walk -- the non-cattle car plane.

The lure for the airlines includes operating efficiency: The A380 is designed to be super-efficient, using 20 percent less fuel than the 747 for flying distances Boeing's flagship cannot match. That could translate into profits.

No U.S. carrier has ordered the aircraft. After all, they're focused on survival.

Huge Plane

Here's a helpful review: The A380 is a full double-decker with 50 percent more floor space than the 747. Its wing span is nearly the length of a football field and it is long enough for the Wright Brothers' first flight to have taken place twice inside the plane. The smaller upper deck, alone, is 133 feet, 5 inches long.

I most recently saw the plane in operation several months ago in Singapore, on its first long haul flight test.

Pilots who flew it to Asia from France said it handled in the air like a dream. One told me he felt he was flying a much smaller plane. And it lands at such a low speed -- less than 150 knots -- that watching the A380 as it approaches the runway, it seems almost frozen in the air. You only get the sense of its size after it lands and taxis past what we once considered huge planes, the 747 or Boeing 777, on the ground.

Inside, there is a sense of size, of course, but not of speed. It seems almost like an ocean liner. And engineers who flew on that trip to Australia and Malaysia as well as Singapore said it passed every in-flight test. They did not discuss the three cases of champagne observed on the lower deck despite being partially hidden.


There have, however, been problems, and the plane will enter service nine months later than promised after a series of creeping delays. Airline industry officials said initially the A380 was heavier and louder than promised and would not meet standards at airports in the United States and Europe.

There also has been talk of problems with wing stability. But Airbus COO Champion says those problems have been overcome, while vaguely blaming the delays on "engineering capacity."

With fewer than 160 orders, however, there are still questions whether it will be a commercial success. Airbus spent $12 billion developing the plane and must sell more than 250 just to break even.

And will it revolutionize air travel as the 747 did 36 years ago? That's an open question that will be answered only when it enters service. Will airports handle it with dispatch? Will it load and unload efficiently? How long will it take to get luggage?

The biggest question of all may be: Will the experience on board be one of comfort, not crowding, of space on long flights? Will the travel experience be better?

Still, there's no denying that the plane inside and out is magnificent. Watching it land in Singapore, I simply could not take my eyes off it. I hope I find it equally magnificent after my first commercial flight.