Flying on the A380: A Retrospective on Making a New Airplane


02/12/12 By Robbin Laird

Recently, I flew for the first time on the A380 from Washington to Paris aboard the Air France configuration of the A380.  This flight made me think back to all the critics and naysayers and to reflect on the process of building a modern aircraft.  The F-35, the 787 and the A380 all have suffered some of the similar dynamics: naysayers focusing on challenges in the process, not the outcome and not really understanding the process of building modern airplanes.

In this first of three postings, I am simply going to focus on the plane and the experience.  I was leaving Washington on a Friday after two exhausting weeks and was not really focused on my first A380 flight.  I had seen the plane in various phases of design and production, so really wasn’t thinking about the upcoming experience.

The bottom line would be simple: I would never want to fly on a 777 again after flying on the A380.  It brought back the excitement of my first flight at 12 on a Caravelle (the same age as the tankers we have our Air Force flying) or my first flight in the bubble deck of the 747.  I must admit that the for me the 747 era had no peer, until now.  I loved the years of flying transatlantic on the 747 – large seats, space and no feeling of being a rat in an experimental cage.

Credit; Airbus

The first reality for me was the boarding.  More like an ocean liner than a double isle airplane.  Two entry points to each deck, made boarding easy and less crowded.  I flew business class in the bulkhead business class seat 60L.  I boarded and experienced immediately a sense of space I had not felt since the old 747 days, but better.  The lighting was subdued but very clear.  There was a lounge area in the front of the business area, where I walked when I wished during the flight.  The storage bins were large, and there are bins besides the seats, something you can only get on the 777 in first class.  The toilet was immense so you could feel like a real person using the commode.

The seat in business class could be almost flat for sleeping.  And in the night when you wished to go to the bathroom, but were sitting by the window, you could actually get past the person sitting next to you, without looking like you wanted to land on top of them.

The engines are extremely quiet.  From one of my colleagues, I heard that the pilots of the Qantas variant, the pilots complained that the engines were so quiet that they could not sleep.  They were being kept awake by the noise from the first class cabin.

The plane had a camera mounted on the rear of the aircraft and the bird looked a bit like some prehistoric beast lumbering down the runway towards flight.  The wings are immense and really amazing to look at from the camera or out the window.

The gate at Dulles from which we departed had several smaller planes, such as Embraer jets, and unlike the warnings from the naysayers, not of them flipped over as the immense bird passed them.  And we flew from the runway I usually depart off of to go to Europe, so the “special” runways the plane needed according to “aviation” experts in the press seemed to look exactly like good old runways I have flown off of for 30 years.

The air system is significantly better.  The air was much fresher than I have experienced in 30 years of flying.  And because no one has smoked on the plane during commercial service, that 30 year residual sense of smoke which you smell on legacy fleets is simply not there.

The sense of space of the aircraft had a palpable effect.  The passengers were more relaxed and less aggressive than normal.  And the Air France stewards and stewardesses were even friendly.  This is an historic achievement!

In short, good bye Continental 777 and hello Air France A380.  That will be my business planning for 2012 from Washington to Paris.

An obvious achievement in aviation history, and a new complex but amazing product, the A380 should provide a lesson learned to the armchair critics who are the civilian equivalent to the cubical commandos.

Airbus critics and commentators have focused on the faults in the process to get to a manufactured product, not the outcome.

And this is so much the case for what will happen when the 787 and the F-35 become staples of aviation.

The A380 is a cautionary tale to the critics, but, of course, it won’t be.