A Great Divide Between Comfort And Cattle Class?

For a taste of the good life, stroll through the first-class cabin in the full-size mock-up of the A380 on display at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse. Ease into a butter-soft leather reclining seat. Peruse the video library. Step into the shower room and finger the fluffy towels and bathrobes.

Now, for a dose of reality, go through a door at the back of the cabin into a vast, empty space. On the deck above, there's a similarly cavernous expanse. You're looking at the A380's economy cabins. Imagine them filled with passengers seated 10 abreast, and you start to wonder: Will this plane give a whole new meaning to the term "cattle class"?

Critics predict that the A380 will be a superjumbo-size turnoff to passengers. "What's in it for me to sit on an airplane with 500 other people, wait for my bags with 500 other people, check in with 500 other people?" Continental Airlines chief Gordon Bethune asked National Business Travel Assn. members recently in Dallas.

Even A380 enthusiasts admit airlines will have to cram as many travelers into the cabins as possible, to achieve the plane's advertised economies of scale. "The airlines can't fill it up with bowling alleys and boutiques. The real estate is too expensive," says Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, which plans to operate 45 A380s.

Exactly how carriers will configure the A380's interior is a secret tightly guarded by each airline. But it's likely that most will devote a good portion of both decks to economy class, with passengers sitting 3-4-3 across, the same configuration as most of Boeing Co.'s 747s. Even so, the superjumbo could offer pleasant surprises to long-suffering economy passengers, says Alexandra Schaar of Egg & Dart, a Munich-based interior design firm that is advising several A380 customers. For example, there will be a high-ceilinged open space at the rear of the plane, accessible to economy passengers, with a spiral staircase leading to the upper deck. Schaar says some airlines will probably use the area for snack bars or duty-free shops, a boon to passengers wanting to get up and stretch their legs. To make the surroundings more pleasant, she says airlines are considering plexiglas-enclosed waterfalls and plasma display screens with soothing images such as sunsets.

The huge passenger cabins may have some appealing features, too. Thanks to newly developed composite materials, airlines could install seats with thinner backs, increasing the space between rows to 34 to 36 inches, compared with 30 to 33 inches on most aircraft now. "This will be coupled with audio/video-on-demand systems that allow passengers to watch what they want, when they want, as well as provide access to the Internet," predicts Anthony James, editor of the magazine Aircraft Interiors International, based in Surrey, England.

For pampered first-class passengers, any inconvenience at the boarding gate will probably be quickly forgotten. They can stroll to the bar, or perhaps down to a gym on the lower deck, next to the cargo hold. In fact, predicts James: "The A380 could see a super first class, where passengers are swept into private suites akin to sleeper cabins on trains." With that kind of treatment, air travel could start to seem like fun again.

By Carol Matlack in Toulouse

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