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Innovation & Design

Flying to Dubai on the A380 Jumbo Jet

The World Economic Forum in Dubai looked at designing a post-crisis global system. Getting there was a design experience in itself

I just returned from a World Economic Forum conference on designing a post-crisis global system. The ruler of Dubai was nice enough to pick up the tab for the confab, so I flew business class on one of the double-decker A380 jumbo jets flown by Emirates Airlines. It was without doubt the best-designed flying experience I've had on any commercial airline. Which is a good thing since this was also one of the longest flights (12 hours to Dubai, 14 hours back to New York) I've ever taken.

You start the flying journey in the lounge at JFK. It's nice and welcoming, but most of all, it connects directly to the business class section of the plane. You simply walk from the lounge into the top level of the jet, circumventing the 400 or so other folks downstairs queueing up to get into steerage. Given the huge number of people flying in one aircraft (489 in all), I had always wondered about crowd control for the A380. Moving directly from lounge to plane is the quick and easy solution.

Then the fun really begins. The business cabin of the A380 is designed like no other plane. Instead of rows of seats, there is a sea of cockpits stretching back into the plane. There's one row of double cockpits in the middle and two singles along the window sides. The cockpits are lower than standard seats so there is more space in the cabin. It was so odd that I couldn't quite "get" the configuration right off.

Deep in the Cockpit

Once I walked down to my own space, things became clear. I took out my books (Zogby's new one, The Way We'll Be, and Sujata Massey's The Pearl Diver) and my Mac and put my carry-on bags in the overhead locker. Then I lowered myself down deep into the cockpit, sitting low on the ground, feet outstretched, surrounded completely by the entertainment/information system. It felt private, and I didn't see much of my neighbors on the way out. On the return flight, I sat across from the eminent blogger Jeff Jarvis, who had also been at the Forum and who did 16 things at once with his laptop and slept without snoring, no mean feat.

Inside your own personal space, the whole passenger experience is about getting entertainment and information by using a large number of controls. Fortunately, those controls are thoughtfully designed, easy to find, and simple to use. The buttons that change the seat configuration from upright sitting to leaning backwards to the completely horizontal sleeping position are clear and within arm's reach.

There is also a tablet you can undock to take control of the ICE—Information, Controls, Entertainment—system. 600 channels of music, radio, TV, movies, you name it. And good movies too: Hancock, Battle in Seattle, The Incredible Hulk. You can SMS, e-mail, and phone from your cockpit, and there were plenty of plugs to soup up your laptop or music gizmos. My favorite feature was the camera in the forward section of the tail which gives you a shot of the plane moving forward.

The only disappointment with the information system on my flight was that BBC News didn't work. We left at 11 p.m. on Nov. 4, as the pilot announced that Barack Obama had won the Presidency. But I was then left in the dark because the BBC News connection was off. It was off on the return flight as well. They need to fix that.

The lie-flat beds are the best I've ever had in a plane. If you're a big person, you might have a problem. It flattens out to 6 ft. 7 in., which should be ample even for most six-footers, but I somehow filled nearly all the space and I'm not nearly that tall. Then again, if you're that big, you might as well just stand up in the bar/lounge at the back of the plane. It was swell, with a smart bartender, good drinks, light food, and great conversation.

By the way, I hear you can actually take a shower in First Class.

Nussbaum is contributing editor to BusinessWeek. Previously assistant managing editor in charge of BusinessWeek's innovation and design coverage, he was named one of the 40 most powerful people in design by I.D. Magazine in 2005.

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