Aloft on Airbus' Giant New A380

The megaplane won't enter service until October, but BusinessWeek's Carol Matlack was impressed by its quiet during a test flight for media

Sure, you've heard the bad news about the Airbus A380: the fouled-up wiring, the canceled orders, the billions in lost profits. But admit it: If you had a chance to fly on the world's biggest passenger plane eight months before it's scheduled to enter service, wouldn't you say yes?

I did. On Feb. 7, Airbus invited about 200 journalists on a flight aboard the megaplane from the company's headquarters in Toulouse, France. The trip, which featured free-flowing champagne and canapés and some 40 Airbus executives strolling the aisles on spin-control duty, was hardly typical of what airline passengers will experience. Only about half of the 519 seats were occupied, and our cruise over the Pyrenees and the Bay of Biscay lasted just two hours, a fraction of the time the A380 will fly on routes such as Singapore to San Francisco.

Counting the Seats

We flew aboard an Airbus test model, fitted out with cabin furnishings to give an idea of what the airlines may offer. There were a dozen first-class seats on the main deck, and two business-class cabins totaling 64 seats on the upper deck. The rest of the plane, 443 seats, was taken up by economy class, with passengers seated 10 across. Seats were assigned by lottery: I got lucky and drew business class, a cabin decorated in soothing tones of pale yellow.

Even in business and first class, the cabin amenities were nothing to get excited about. The state-of-the-art in-flight entertainment system looked pretty cool, with oversized TV screens at every seat, but it wasn't operating. The furnishings were attractive, but basic—nothing like the creamy leather upholstery, wood paneling, and mood lighting that the airlines are likely to offer their premium customers. And while it was fun checking out the fully-reclining beds in first class, they weren't much different from what's offered on existing planes.

Still, there's no question that flying on the A380 feels different. Surprisingly, it's not the double-decker configuration that makes the strongest impression. Because passengers on each deck board through a separate jetway, the view upon entering looks a lot like the cabin of any widebody plane. It definitely feels roomier, though. The A380's main cabin is 20 inches wider than the Boeing 747's, though both planes typically have economy passengers seated 10 across. The upper deck isn't as wide, as the fuselage narrows toward the top of the plane. Upper-deck economy class had only eight seats across, but it still felt spacious.

Sound and Vision

Another big difference is the noise—or lack of it. The four huge Rolls-Royce engines on our plane seemed to emit little more than a low hum, even during takeoff when engine noise is usually most noticeable. It was easy to talk to passengers across the aisle and in adjoining rows without raising your voice. Landing was surprisingly quiet, too; we could barely hear the landing gear descend. The plane also felt comfortingly stable, even as we encountered what the pilot said were 20- to 30-knot winds as we prepared to land at Toulouse.

Perhaps the most striking difference was the view out the window. The A380's wings are quite long, almost 20% longer than the 747's. And they are flexible, bending almost four meters during takeoff and landing maneuvers. As we taxied for takeoff, we passed an A340—Airbus' second-biggest plane—on the runway. It looked tiny.

Because of the A380's much-publicized production delays, the first plane isn't scheduled to enter service until October, with Singapore Airlines. Airbus officials said on Feb. 7 that they expected 13 more planes to enter service in 2008, and 25 the year after that. So chances are you may not fly on this giant bird anytime soon. But if the opportunity comes up, I'd say it's worth trying at least once.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.