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
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Sometimes it seems that the aim of modernity is to flush the romance out of life. The library, with its Daedalian labyrinth, mysterious hush, and faintly ominous aroma of knowledge, has been replaced by the computer's cheap glow, pesky chirp, and data spillage. Who born since 1960 has any notion of the Near East's exotic charms? Whence the Rubáiyát? Whither Scheherazade? The Thief of Baghdad is jailed, eating Doritos in his underwear. As for romance itself … "Had we but world enough, and pills, / For erectile dysfunction's ills." And nothing is more modern than air travel.

As stimulating adventure, flying nowadays ranks somewhere between appearing in traffic court and going to Blockbuster with the DVD of Shrek 2 that my toddler inserted in the toaster. Thus the maiden flight, on April 27, 2005, of the Airbus A380, the world's largest airliner, did not spark the world's imagination. Or it did—with mental images of a boarding process like going from Manhattan to the Hamptons on a summer Friday, except by foot with carry-on baggage. This to get a seat more uncomfortable than an aluminum beach chair.

What a poor, dull response to a miracle of engineering. The A380 is a Lourdes apparition at the departure ramp. Consider just two of its marvels: Its takeoff weight is 1.235 million pounds. And it takes off. The A380 is the heaviest airplane ever flown—171 tons heavier than the previous record holder, the somewhat less miraculously engineered Soviet Antonov An-124.

The A380 can fly as fast as a Boeing 747-400, and farther, and the twin passenger decks running the full length of its fuselage give it half again more cabin space.

However, the only expressions of awe over the A380's specifications that I've heard have been awful predictions of the crowding inside. These tend to be somewhat exaggerated. "Oh, my God—Southwest to Tampa with a thousand people!" said a member of my immediate family who often shepherds kids to Grandma's on budget carriers while their dad has to take an earlier flight "for business reasons."

Airbus maintains that with its recommended seating configuration the A380 will hold 555 passengers, versus about 412 in a 747-400. The U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate, the president, the vice-president, the Cabinet, two swing-voting Supreme Court justices, and Karl Rove can all fly together in an A380. (Maybe that statistic will create some popular excitement, if they fly far enough away.) But the London Sunday Times has reported that Emirates, an airline with forty-five of the new planes on order, "would pack as many as 649 passengers into the A380." The president of Emirates, Tim Clark, told The Times, "Personally, I'd have liked to put 720 seats in." And the chairman of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Sir Richard Branson, has bragged that each Virgin A380 will have a beauty parlor, a gym, double beds, and a casino—three out of four of which sound worse than 719 seatmates.

I consulted an old friend, Peter Flynn, who is the sales director for Airbus North America. He assured me that the A380 is an incredible airplane. It didn't sound like mere professional assurance. Peter was a Navy helicopter pilot during the Vietnam War and remembers when flying was really a stimulating adventure.

Two months to the day after the A380 first became airborne, Peter and I were at Airbus headquarters, in Toulouse, France, in the A380 systems-testing facility. The building is as blank-walled as the Kaaba and much larger. We stood on a glassed-in balcony three stories above the main floor looking at something called the Iron Bird. This is a full-scale installation of all the mechanical, electrical, and hydraulic connections within an A380 and of all the moving parts to which they are joined except the engines. The Iron Bird was very busy trying out the levers, gears, cylinders, struts, and things-I-don't-know-the-names-of that work the landing gear, rudder, elevators, ailerons, and things-I-don't-know-the-names-of-either.

We think of a passenger plane as a pod, a capsule wafting through the atmosphere containing mainly us and, if we're lucky, our luggage. Jet power plants are simply automatic typhoons, effortlessly blowing hot air. And while we fervently hope the jets continue to do that, it doesn't occur to us that an airliner has a greater confusion of innards than anything we dissected in science lab, even if we went to veterinary school. I wonder what the ancient Romans would have divined from such entrails. Certainly not aviation. The Iron Bird couldn't have looked less avian. Nor—airplanes being made of aluminum and carbon-fiber composites and such—was much ferrous metal involved. The iron in the Iron Bird was in the steel ramps and ladders branching over and through it so that engineers could go to and fro.

Our corporate tour guide, the cheerful and patient Debra Batson, the manager for "scientific media," pointed out one of the Iron Bird's most important components. This looked to me like a tangle of extension cords from an overambitious attempt at outdoor Christmas lighting. Airbus was the first producer of commercial aircraft to make its planes all fly-by-wire. That is, there are no rods or cables—nothing that can be pushed or yanked—between the flyer and the flown. Everything is accomplished by computer command. And I trust that the nosewheel pays more attention to its e-mail than I do to mine.

Debra pointed out another of the most important components, which looked like a tangle of garden hoses from an attempt to put out the fire caused by the outdoor Christmas lighting. This was the hydraulic system that operates the A380's control surfaces. In the A380 the pressure in the hydraulic system has been increased from the usual 3,000 pounds per square inch to 5,000 psi, making the system smaller, lighter, and as powerful as the kick to the back of my passenger seat from the child sitting behind me. The hydraulics also handle the braking on the A380's twenty-wheel main landing gear. A 302-page promotional Airbus publication titled A New Dimension in Air Travel informed me that "the brake is capable of stopping 45 double-decker buses traveling at 200 mph, simultaneously, in under 25 seconds." It is an ambition of mine to learn enough math to figure out comparisons like that and write them myself. But I'm afraid I'd get carried away with digressions about what kind of engine you'd have to put in a double-decker bus to make it go that fast, where you'd drive it, how you'd find forty-four people to drive the other buses, and what would happen to the bus riders.

I did get carried away thinking about the miracle of engineering. It is not vouchsafed even to the pope to see the very mechanism by which miracles are performed. Would the pope be as confused by his kind of miracle as I was by the Iron Bird? Would this affect the doctrine of papal infallibility?

"Above my pay grade," Peter said. He and Debra and I went to the other side of the building to look at the cockpit simulators. These were arrayed along a wall and curtained off like private viewing booths for the kind of movie you aren't supposed to see. We peeked inside one. That kind of movie wasn't playing on the simulator's windscreen. A speeding runway came toward us, followed by dropping land, and enveloping haze, and more vertigo than we would have felt if the floor had moved. It hadn't. "Unfortunately," Peter said, "the rock-and-roll simulator was booked up today. You can crash that one. And it makes really embarrassing noises."

The simulator we were in was computer-linked to the Iron Bird. Two pilots in sports clothes sat at the controls while people with clipboards stood behind them taking notes. The pilots didn't seem to do much. Mostly they tapped on computer keyboards or fiddled with a trackball mouse. This was what was causing the frenetic activity in the Iron Bird—a teenager's immersion in Grand Theft Auto leading to an actual car's being stolen somewhere.

I sat in the pilot seat of another simulator. Peter took the copilot position. There wasn't even a jump seat for Debra. "This whole big damn thing," I said, "is flown by … you and me?"

"Yep," Peter said, "and it doesn't need me."

I, however, couldn't find any controls except rudder pedals to pump. I hope these weren't computer-linked to anything and that I didn't initiate wild yaw that knocked any Iron Bird engineers off their ramps and ladders. In front of me, instead of a yoke, was a foldout desktop. Perhaps these days the most important function of a pilot is to fill out Homeland Security forms with information on suspicious passengers.

"Look over to your left," Peter said.

"But it's like the joystick on an Atari game," I said.

"Yep," Peter said.

"Could you fly one of these?" I asked. "I mean, and land it?"

"Yep," Peter said. "The computers do all the work."

And there were a lot of computers—eight LCD screens. They showed … well, they showed lots of things.

"I've never played Atari," I said.

Debra explained that the A380 has essentially the same computer hardware and, indeed, essentially the same cockpit as all other Airbus aircraft, from the 107-seat A318 on up.

"So you just build a plane," I said, "and the cockpit plugs in like a memory stick."

"I don't think we put it that way in the promotional literature," Debra said.

The promotional literature cites the advantages of "Flight Operational Commonality." Airbus estimates that pilots of its A340 series aircraft, which carry 300 to 380 passengers, can be certified to fly the A380 with just a week or two of additional training, thanks to the adaptive flexibility of computer technology.

I've never liked computers as much as I like the stuff that I call hardware. Computers seem a little too adaptively flexible, like the strange natives, odd societies, and head cases we study in the social sciences. There's more opposable thumb in the digital world than I care for; it's awfully close to human.

"Does spam ever pop up on the cockpit computer screens?" I asked. "Or unwanted Jude Law babysitter sex videos?"

"No," said Debra.

Debra took us to the A380 interior mock-up, to see how the human beings that we'll be awfully close to will be seated on the A380. Toulouse, of course, is where Lautrec was from—he of perfect proportions for modern airline seating. But I didn't mention it. Debra did mention that Airbus has no final responsibility for what airlines do with the A380's interior, let alone for the behavior of the passengers. But Airbus tries to keep air steerage from being foisted on the public. And the designers of the A380 interior mock-up tried to wrest the graciously spacious from the ghastly vast.

Clever partitioning eliminated the tube-of-doom look and gave the rows of seats theaterlike proportions. In theaters, after all, people regularly sit more tightly confined in harder chairs for worse experiences than an airline flight. At least that was my experience with Rent. In the forward cabin wide steps rose to the upper deck, and in the tail a spiral staircase descended. For some reason a spiral staircase always adds zest to a setting. Perhaps it speaks to the DNA helix in us all.

Airbus wasn't trying to kid anyone with this mock-up. No bowling alleys, squash courts, or lap pools were to be seen. Instead there was a small duty-free shop, a couple of miniature barrooms where you could stand with your foot on the rail, a nook with built-in davenports, and other places in which you could stretch, be free and easy, and not feel like you were trapped in a Broadway extravaganza and would catch hell from your wife and the eighteen people between you and the aisle if you bolted.

The first-class section, of course, was supplied with those investment bankers' La-Z-Boys—Laissez-Faire-Boys, if you will—that can turn themselves into club chairs, chaise longues, or featherbeds and are equipped with buttons to press to get practically anything you want other than Jude Law's babysitter. Business class had something similar, with maybe one fewer caviar spoon and champagne bucket per customer.

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.

Actually, the A380 is built all over Europe. This was the final-assembly plant. The plane arrives in seven pieces sounding like some provincial soup recipe: three slices of fuselage, two wings, a fin, and a tail. The parts come to Toulouse by way of ocean freighters, canal barges, road convoys, and Airbus's whale-shaped and more than whale-sized Beluga transport plane. (Measured by cargo volume, the Beluga is even larger than the A380.) I particularly liked picturing whole wings and great cabin sections strapped to humble barges, bringing a bit of industrial reality (and swamped decks) to people taking those French canal-boat tours and trying to pretend that travel is fun.

The constituent parts of an A380 are placed in a single enormous jig—a Jell-O mold with the miniature marshmallows, fruit slices, and nutmeats aligned by means of laser technology to degrees of precision that take a lot of zeros behind a variety of decimal points to express.

Engineering miracles have always required genius, but the miraculousness has gotten to a point where comparable genius is needed to explain it. Fortunately, a genius showed us around the factory. This was Charles Champion, an Airbus executive vice-president and the head of the A380 program since the project was launched, nearly five years ago. Champion has since been promoted to chief operating officer of Airbus. But he is first an engineer. And he all but glowed with enjoyment at the A380's engineering.

For example, the A380's wings are clad in an esoteric alloy. What an ordinary mechanical engineer would call "unobtainium."

The wing panels are up to 108 feet long and nine feet wide, and in places they are only an eighth of an inch thick. They need to hold a "double curved aerodynamic shape." The way to achieve this is with a twenty-four-hour application of varying temperatures and loads to create "stress relaxation" and "permanent deformation." The process is called "creep age forming," and opportunities for Michael Jackson wisecracks aside, I have no idea what I'm talking about.

But Charles Champion did. And he made everything, if not exactly clear, clearly exciting.

Peter was looking around as if he were on a machinery Mt. Olympus, watching the powers of the firmament come together, this Leda mating (aided by laser technology) with that swan. Peter is a romantic about machines. When he was a helicopter pilot, machines saved his life any number of times. Of course, it was machines that put his life in jeopardy. But that's romance.

Charles Champion told us how the first A380 built wasn't flown but was towed to a static test platform, where its wings and fuselage were twisted and bent and loaded with weights until the plane was destroyed.

"That must have been horrible," I said, "to see that happen to your first A380."

"Engineers love to break things," Champion said.

And French industrial workers love to make them. At least they seemed to at Airbus. The assembly plant had a calm, cheerful, collegial air. Everything was tidy and well lit. Only the most muffled noises of manufacture could be heard. If Charles Dickens had visited Airbus, he might have given up on the frenzied life of writing and lecturing that eventually killed him and reconsidered the blacking factory.

It had been a day of reconsideration for me, too. I was reconsidering my free-trade principles. The governments of France, Germany, Britain, and other European Union countries have "invested" in the A380. Boeing calls this a subsidy and has gone off in a snit to the World Trade Organization—as if Boeing didn't sell Air Force One to the U.S. government for a pretty penny. Should I be upset that taxes on Europeans will help pay for American airfares?

I was also reconsidering my free-market ideals. Charles Champion said that among the difficulties of the A380 program were the political considerations of which factories were to make what where. The result, it seems to me, is that the most expensive parts, such as the wings and the cockpit, are manufactured in the most expensive places, such as England and France. A Chinese electronics company might as well outsource production to Manhattan and Beverly Hills. But do we really want Guatemalan child laborers sewing the treads to the tires on our landing gear?

And I was reconsidering the French. They were welcoming at Airbus and everywhere else in Toulouse. They didn't make fun of Peter when he spoke their language or me when I spoke mine. Food was magnifique. Manners were charmant.

At a magnifique lunch given in the Airbus executive dining room by the elegant Barbara Kracht, the vice-president of media relations, manners remained charmant even when I asked her, "What's with the bus?"

"You could have called the company," I said, "'Airphaeton,' 'Airlimousine,' even 'Airyacht.'" She responded politely, saying that when Airbus was founded, in 1970, it was still difficult to get people to think of flying as an affordable means of transportation.

We've gotten over that little hurdle. One thing I wasn't reconsidering was air travel. I had a flight home the next day and was trying not to think about it—with some success, considering I was standing next to a vehicle designed to provide the most air travel in history.

We were on a platform beside a nearly completed A380. The wingtip was just above our heads. "Go ahead," Charles Champion said to me. "Grab it." I reached up and tentatively curled my fingers over the metal. "Now pull down," he said.

The A380 wing is one of the mightiest structures ever created—9,100 square feet of ribs, spars, and skin able to thrust itself out 147 feet into nothingness and give lift to its half of 1.235 million pounds. I pulled, and this great formation bowed to my eye level, supple as a living thing.

With the whole wing flexing at my light grasp, all the poetic, fanciful wonder of living in 2005 came back to me. I'd outdone Keats and Shelley in matters of the sublime. It touched them. I touched it.

I was full of quixotic fervor. I would fly on an A380 straight to hell. And unless airport amenities, immigration clearance, baggage delivery, customs inspection, and the courtesy of security personnel improve dramatically before the A380 goes into service, I will.

P. J. O'Rourke is a correspondent for The Atlantic. His most recent book is Peace Kills.
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