The world's biggest passenger plane could soon be headed your way. The Airbus (EAD.PA) A380 entered service only nine months ago, and currently there are only five of the double-decker planes at work carrying Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) passengers to London, Singapore, Tokyo, and Sydney. But that's about to change.
On Aug. 1, Emirates Airline will introduce A380 flights between Dubai International Airport and New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. In November, Australia's Qantas (QAN.AX) will launch Sydney-to-Los Angeles service, and in early 2009, Singapore Airlines will begin service between Singapore and San Francisco.
The A380 will even make a brief appearance in China, as Singapore plans to fly to Beijing for the Olympic Games during the first week of August. Singapore will add still more destinations to its A380 route map over the next three years as it gradually replaces its fleet of Boeing (BA) 747s with the new planes. Singapore's A380 is fitted with 471 seats, vs. 375 on its 747s.
So what can passengers expect if they book a seat on this giant bird? By now, most have heard about the luxurious, first-class bedroom suites being offered on Singapore, but at more than $10,000 a pop, not many will be buying those tickets. Will economy-class travel on the A380 only add to the miseries of boarding and flying?
For now, passengers seem to be giving the A380 a thumbs-up. Singapore, which has A380s and 747s flying on some of the same routes, charges 2.5% to 6% more for tickets on the newer plane. The airline says that reflects stronger customer demand for the A380. "Everywhere it has gone, it has turned heads," says Stephen Forshaw, a Singapore spokesman.
Joseph Roberts, a London-based financial consultant who travels regularly to Asia, says he used to fly British Airways (BAY.L) but switched to Singapore because of the A380. "When you have to hit the ground running, the extra space of [the A380's] business class is important," he says. On the other hand, Roberts says he doesn't think the A380's engine noise is noticeably quieter than on other planes, as Airbus and other enthusiasts have claimed.
But onboard comfort won't count for much if passengers have to endure misery on the ground. To ease the crush of 450-plus passengers at departure gates, airports such as Dubai, JFK, and San Francisco have set up two-tiered boarding areas, with two bridges carrying economy passengers to the main deck, while a third takes first- and business-class passengers to the upper deck.
"The design is all about flow," says Paul Griffiths, chief executive of Dubai International Airport. Griffiths says that in trial runs in Dubai, an A380 was fully boarded within 20 minutes. "We expect people to spend very little time at the gates," he says.
Making Room for the A380
Airports have also fitted their arrival areas with expanded immigration, customs, and baggage-claim facilities to absorb A380 traffic. New baggage carousels at JFK and at Singapore's Changi Airport have belts as long as football fields.
Those improvements haven't been cheap. JFK spent $40 million reconfiguring four gates at its Terminal 1 to accommodate the A380, says Edward Paquette, the terminal director. JFK's Terminal 4, which will start receiving Emirates A380 traffic in August, installed three new passenger bridges at $1 million apiece. The airport has also bought special de-icing and catering trucks—each costing $500,000—to service the plane.
But those sums pale in comparison with the astounding $5 billion being spent by Dubai International Airport, which is outfitting a new terminal with 19 gates dedicated solely to the A380. Dubai-based Emirates is the A380's single biggest customer, with 58 planes on order.
Like Singapore, future A380 operators such as Emirates and Qantas are promising state-of-the art entertainment systems and spiffy new seat designs. Beyond that, they're keeping most details of the interior decor under wraps until launching service—although Qantas has disclosed that its business-class cabin will have a lounge with sofas and a self-service bar.
Of course, the buzz over the A380 won't last forever. Attention could soon shift to Boeing's latest plane, the fuel-sipping 787 Dreamliner, which is scheduled to enter service in late 2009. But for now, airlines appear confident they will have no problem filling seats. "It's been a long time coming," says Singapore's Forshaw, recalling the production snafus that delayed the plane's launch by nearly two years. "Now that it's here, people want to try it out."
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