Travels November 2005

The Mother Load

"Oh, my God—Southwest to Tampa with a thousand people!" In France our correspondent gets an inside look at the new Airbus A380, the world's biggest passenger plane—and actually kind of likes what he sees

But most of us travel as plain old "gate freight." The A380's size is what seems to worry people, yet the size is also the selling point—offering potential comfort as well as potential low fares. The A380, although it contains 50 percent more room than a 747, is supposed to contain only 35 percent more seats. The A380's upper passenger deck is almost as wide as the main deck of a 747, and the lower one is nineteen inches wider. Airbus says proudly—a bit too proudly—that 1.3 inches in seat width is gained in economy class. This is modest progress. The 747 was introduced thirty-five years ago. I've gained 1.3 inches in seat width since the last time I bought pants.

A better measure of comfort than width is what's termed pitch. This is the distance between my expanding posterior and the aching back of the person in front of me. Airbus wants seats to have a minimum pitch of thirty-four inches and urges airlines to choose the thinnest seatback designs. But room is lost to that Satan's looking glass, the in-seat video screen.

A thirty-two-inch pitch, or even less, is common in the airline industry. I am five feet nine. Sitting in a living-room chair, I can measure twenty-six inches from my wallet to the disappearance of my trouser creases. Subtract another four inches for the TV-thickened seat in front of me, and stuffing a copy of The Truth About Hillary into my seatback pocket means arthroscopic surgery.

In the economy section of the A380 mock-up Airbus designers compensated for this dark truth with relentlessly cheerful carpet and upholstery in subtropical-fruit colors. I think they overdid it. One shade of citron pleaded to be called "Lemony Snicket." The mock-up also had a mood-lighting system that projected upon the cabin ceiling a beautiful morning, noon, or nighttime sky, according to the hour of the day. This would be perfectly unnecessary if the fool in the window seat would quit watching Wedding Crashers, open his shade, and look outside.

I looked outside myself, and a real A380 was standing on a taxiway. The Airbus corporate complex sprawls like an American Sunbelt development, but with the Toulouse airport at the center of it instead of a golf course. The A380 was a three-wood and a five-iron away. It didn't look so large. Then I noticed next to the A380 a wide-body A340, the largest Airbus plane until now. The A340 was diminutive in its ordinary hugeness.

Even so, the A380 was more impressive for its presence than for its bulk. The wingspan is 261 feet eight inches—fifty-three feet longer than an A340-600's. There is a reassuring double amount of surface to the A380's wing. This wing is so thick where it meets the fuselage that you could park a car inside. The A380 cockpit, instead of being perched on the catbird seat like a 747's, is placed low in the fuselage, where the pilots can mind their business with the ground. It gives the plane a high-foreheaded, thoughtful look.

The A380 in fact has not two but three decks—the lowest devoted to luggage, freight, and crew rest facilities for long-range flights. The decks are contained in an oval cross section with a smooth ship-hull curve. The wings sweep back at 33 degrees, almost in the shape of a jib, and the stabilizer fin is as wide and tall and rakishly set as a Cunard funnel. The A380 seemed nautical—more liner than airliner. No one ever quailed at the prospect of the Queen Mary 2's carrying 720 passengers.

"Five hundred and fifty-five," Debra corrected.

The A380—the only one flying at that time—taxied away and then turned and rolled in our direction. Now it did look like an airplane, carrying itself with dignity and tending a bit to embonpoint. It had none of the fashionable emaciation of the old 707, with its gaunt runway-model (as it were) looks. Nor did it have the DC-10's scary put-the-engines-anywhere accessorizing style. Rather, the A380 had ton. (And tonnage.)

"Can I get on a test ride?" I asked.

"No," Debra said.

"Why?"

"Insurance," Peter said.

"Insurance" is not usually a romantic word, but think of death and all the other romantic things there are to be insured against. Maybe aviation hasn't lost its glamour.

The A380 rose decisively, and before I thought it would. A 747 needs a third of a mile more to take off. The A380 flew over our heads with a Brobdingnagian whisper. It makes half a 747's noise. And then the A380 flew away, into a haze very similar to the haze projected on the windscreen of the A380 cockpit simulator. Let the haze stand for predictions about the future of travel. Will it ever be fun again?

Anyway, building an A380 seemed like fun. Debra and Peter and I went to the production line. Surprise at the scale of the A380 was quieted by surprise at the scale of the place where three more of them were being built. I did not know there was so much indoors. The factory, Debra said, can be seen from space.

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