Moveable Beast: Maiden Flight of the A380

Singapore Airlines flight SQ380—the first commercial flight of the Airbus A380—taxied down the runway of Singapore’s Changi International Airport. I was strapped into seat 26F, in the second-to-last row of business class on the upper deck. I cinched my seatbelt tighter than I normally would, and then I pulled it tighter still. The view was roughly the same as from the top-floor window of an eight-story building. From nose to tail, the plane is about as long as a football field—with its wingtips dragging through the bleachers on both sides—and we were now accelerating down the runway.

At precisely 8:15AM—roughly two years late and billions of dollars over budget—the world’s largest aircraft levitated upward with 455 passengers and 35 crew onboard. Whistles, whoops and catcalls filled the cabin, but as I looked out the window and watched a series of tropical islets grow smaller beneath a massive, hulking wing, I couldn’t help but wonder if we should hold our applause until we had landed safely in Sydney. We still had more than seven hours to go until the A380’s first commercial landing.

The party had begun hours earlier. The check-in counters opened at 5AM. I was still trying to locate a cup of coffee and clear the fog from my eyes as the television news cameras showed up. There was a stretch of red carpet lined with paparazzi, and their flashes blinded me as I walked the gauntlet with my boarding pass. “Where are you sitting?” a pap called out. I held up my ticket for a photo. A string quartet was positioned beneath a huge banner of the airplane, but those strings dragged heavily with irony. The classic performance reminded me of the movie Titanic and the quartet that was playing on deck as that ship was sinking—a celebratory first voyage to the very end. Meanwhile, all around me, aviation enthusiasts exchanged stories about other first flights they had taken or had watched: the A340, the 747, the Concord, the space shuttle. I didn’t hear anyone mention the Challenger or Columbia, or, for that matter, the Hindenburg.

Not since the 1970 launch of the Boeing 747 has a single aircraft held so much interest—or so much potential to change an industry that rarely changes. (SA’s second A380 now flies from San Francisco to Singapore. And, in August, Qantas will fly its first A380 from Sydney to Los Angeles.) But it wasn’t until the plane lifted off that the magnitude of the achievement set in. This wasn’t just a bigger bus with curved wings and more seats. This was a completely new way of flying. I was riding in a craft with no current equal. For starters, there was none of the typical rumble associated with airplane cabins. There wasn’t a single bump beneath our 20 tires as we sped down the runway. And the gravitational heaviness one normally feels at takeoff never happened. It was magically graceful.

Once in the air, flight attendants began popping Dom Pérignon and prying open tins of Russian caviar, while celebrity chefs Sam Leong of Singapore and Matt Moran of Sydney began handing out menus: braised beef cheeks, roasted loin of lamb, expensive raw-milk cheeses—and that was merely business class. In the luxury suites of first class, the truly privileged were drinking legendary vintages of Penfolds Grange and Chateau Cos d’Estournel while eating chilled lobster tail with Szechuan peanut dressing and chestnut soup with sautéed foie gras.

Aside from being a completely redesigned airship, and the quietest, most fuel-efficient jumbo jet in the sky, the A380’s most obvious calling card is its size. Inside, the plane is 50 percent more spacious than a 747. Outside, it’s even bigger. The A380 could potentially hold 850 passengers, but Singapore Airlines chose to lavish all that extra space upon its prestige customers. Configured for three classes, Singapore’s product accommodates only 471 fliers—merely 50 more seats than the typical three-class 747.

Well in advance of the first flight, however, Airbus had been positioning the A380 not merely as a bigger vessel, but as a flying cruise ship. Manufacturer mock-ups showed it configured with luxury lounges, cocktail bars, even gyms and duty-free shops. And after a Singapore Airlines chef conference in Shanghai, speculation swirled that the airline might introduce induction cooking, a flameless, cold-to-the-touch process that would allow real cooking onboard. Because of intense industry competition, the airline kept mum about what amenities it would or wouldn’t ultimately include. Alas, sadly, there was no cocktail bar. No lounges for socializing. No showers. No gym. No live cooking. Still, it was hard to be disappointed. The biz-class seats are truly sick (the largest in the sky), and the first-class suites are outfitted like sleeper cabins on luxury trains.

An hour before landing, the captain announced we had been granted special clearance to fly low over Sydney Harbor, where thousands of plane- spotters were gathering to watch our approach. But the clouds were so heavy, we had to abort the parade. The fog was too thick to see the runway until we were on it. And unless you had a window seat, you wouldn’t have known we had landed—it was that smooth. As we taxied toward the gate, the scene around us stopped. Every baggage handler, every mechanic, every pilot, every agent—anyone and everyone with security clearance—lined up on the tarmac to watch us come in. Every passenger at every gate had his or her face pressed against the glass, straining to catch a glimpse of the biggest plane in history. Every 747 and A340 and other wide-bodied jet waiting to take off paused out of respect and awe. And I finally loosened my seatbelt.

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