Reaching new heights in airspace

Times Staff Writer

REALLY big wasn’t quite big enough.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, the lower-deck bar of Lufthansa Flight 8940 was jammed elbow to elbow, and the clientele was antsy.

Stephane Auter, one of 491 people on the maiden voyage to the U.S. of the world’s largest passenger aircraft, was sipping his second glass of private-label Champagne when chief purser Peter Jacobus appeared.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please go to your seats,” Jacobus said sternly. “Right now!”


The bar was designed to accommodate 15 imbibers, and Jacobus, having counted nearly 30, decided it was best to end the party.

The Airbus A380, more than 239 feet long, nearly 80 feet tall and tanked up with enough fuel to top off 5,000 compact cars, had come up short.

“The plane is big, but the bar is too crowded,” concluded Joe Brancatelli, a travel blogger who scored one of the 64 business-class seats on the super-jumbo jet’s first test flight to the U.S. Auter glumly agreed, predicting that airlines probably would decide against equipping their super-jumbos with bars. “This type of thing,” he said, “will disappear.”

The insufficiently capacious bar, in the end, was the only major beef from the passengers, aside from those who got vertigo watching live shots of the takeoff and landing from cameras mounted on the plane’s tail, nose and belly.

It should be noted that most of the passengers were nonpaying guests. Some were employees of Airbus, the European manufacturer that spent more than $19 billion developing the A380, or of Lufthansa, the German carrier that has ordered 15 of the planes. Some were VIPs such as Lufthansa passengers who had accumulated more than 600,000 miles on their frequent-flier accounts.

The veteran passengers didn’t complain when they had to stand in lines up to six people deep to use one of the plane’s 15 lavatories. It was, they said, par for the course on a long-haul air journey, particularly after nonstop complimentary drinks and a meal of lobster, scallops, air-dried beef marinated with porcini mushrooms and a cheese plate.

Flight 8940 took off from the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, at 9 a.m. local time with 21 flight attendants, three pursers, an eight-member cockpit crew and a team of technicians from Airbus whose job was to make sure the personal video screens, one for each passenger, worked properly. (They did, though the menu of on-demand movies was limited to a dozen films, none of them first-run.)

The A380 was designed to hold as many as 850 coach-class seats. But for this flight the test jet was equipped with 519 in three classes: first on the lower deck, business on the upper and coach spread between the two.

When Singapore Airlines later this year becomes the first carrier to put the A380 into regular service, it will probably configure it for 480 passengers. Lufthansa, which will begin flying the plane in the summer of 2009, will have room for 549.

No matter how you arrange the seats, the A380, with a wingspan the length of a football field, pretty much defines big in aerospace standards.

How big?

Lufthansa likes to answer this way: So big it could hold 44 million ping-pong balls or 10 squash courts. Not only that, the airline says, but it weighs as much as 100 elephants, or at least 100 elephants that tip the scales at a combined 1 million pounds or so. And its generators are capable of churning out enough power to provide electrical heating for 800 single-family homes.

The A380 dwarfs anything else flying, most importantly the 747-400, built by Airbus rival Boeing Co. The 747, which typically takes off with a trifling 360 seats, has for nearly 40 years held the title of the world’s largest passenger plane.

When Jurgen Raps, the chief pilot on Monday’s flight, spotted a British Airways 747 in the air nearby he announced over the public address system: “On the left side is a little Boeing 747.”

This prompted dozens of passengers to jump up and go to the port windows to snap pictures.

Germans are well-pleased that Airbus tapped Lufthansa as its partner to work out the logistics of flying and servicing the aircraft. Major parts of the plane are built in Hamburg, Germany, before being shipped to Toulouse, France, for assembly. Monday’s takeoff was big news throughout the country.

In Frankfurt, about 10,000 people paid about $5 each for the chance to stand on an open-air balcony at the airport and look at the A380 over the weekend, when it wasn’t even moving.

“We are pioneers,” said Lufthansa flight attendant Nadia Mueller as she maneuvered a drink cart. “I’m very proud to be on this flight.”

Passengers boarded at a specially designed gate in Frankfurt through three bridges, one connecting to the upper deck and two to the lower, which made loading nearly 500 people uneventful. It took 35 minutes to get all the passengers into their seats -- about as much time as it takes to fill a 747.

Lufthansa noted that the cabin is longer than the length of the Wright brothers’ first flight, which was 120 feet. The cabin was decorated in neutral tones of beige, white and yellow for the test flight, and the tallest of the passengers remarked that they didn’t hit their heads on overhead bins when they stood up. The upper and lower decks, connected by two staircases, felt like their own spacious, individual planes.

“It doesn’t feel that big,” said Beatrice Tuffrau, a banker from Paris who got a seat on the flight thanks to a friend who works for Airbus. “You notice how big it is when you’re outside, but inside it seems like any other airplane.”

And inside, it was weirdly quiet. Airbus executives say the A380 produces half the noise of a 747, mostly because of its state-of-the-art Rolls Royce engines, and there were few doubters.

“What I noticed the most was the noise; there is not much of it,” said Anders Karlsson, a sales manager for a Swedish auto parts maker and one of Lufthansa’s top frequent fliers. “It’s quiet and relaxing. You really don’t even know if you’re taking off.”

For Lufthansa, there was only one unhappy moment. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t let Raps land the craft at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The FAA insisted for safety reasons that an Airbus test pilot make the landing. “We’re disappointed,” Raps said. “There is no logical reason for it.”

Still, when Flight 8940 hit the runway at 12:11 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time -- about 15 minutes before a passenger-less A380 did the same in Los Angeles -- Lufthansa had a record for the number of passengers on a long-haul flight.

The passengers cheered and clapped. They were probably just as happy to see that, after they had made their way through customs, their checked baggage had already been unloaded and was waiting for them on the carousel.

“This was incredible, the trip of a lifetime,” said Kevin Paige, who works for Lufthansa in Boston and was the airline’s only American employee to snag a seat on the flight. There were 14,000 applicants, and Lufthansa picked the winners by lottery.

Lufthansa had been planning for the flight since 2003, checking the test jet’s 310 miles of electrical wiring and making sure the air conditioning and acoustics were up to snuff. The bathrooms were tried out too, when the carrier loaded the plane with 500 Airbus employees a few months ago and asked each of them to flush a toilet several times over a five-hour period.

The 15 toilets on the plane used for the flight represented the bare minimum; most commercial A380s will fly with 18. In fact, buyers will be able to configure the jets any way they choose, and analysts have predicted that some might install lounges, casinos and perhaps even workout facilities. Sources say one very rich person from the Middle East has ordered an A380 for his private use and plans to spend nearly $100 million to equip it with a variety of features, including a Jacuzzi.

The most complex aircraft ever built, the A380 carries a list price of $300 million. So far, 156 orders have been placed -- though none by U.S. carriers. And some orders placed by UPS and Federal Express for freighter versions of the plane were recently canceled. So Monday’s successful flights were crucial to Airbus, which ran into problems during the plane’s development that delayed delivery of the first jets by two years, leading to resignations of top executives.

As the A380 approached JFK, Tuffrau, the banker from Paris, turned on the video monitor at her seat and watched the live feeds from the plane’s exterior cameras, flipping back and forth between the three. The camera on the tail caught the top of the plane and the wings and the horizon in the distance as it moved closer and closer. She stayed with that feed when she spotted the runway up ahead, and moved to the edge of her seat.

“This is really exciting,” she said, eyes wide. “I feel like a child.”