Thursday, March 22, 2007


Very large. Two decks. Surprisingly quiet at takeoff and in flight. Did I say very large?

How about eight stories high, wingspan almost the length of a football field, and capable of holding 853 passengers in all-coach layout, though none of the airlines that have ordered the A380 so far are planning to configure at more than about 550, in three classes.

I was frankly surprised by the number of people who have asked me in the last few days what I thought of the first A380 overseas flight on Monday with a full planeload of passengers, on a trial run in partnership with Airbus, the manufacturer, and Lufthansa, the airline that accounts for 15 of the 156 orders for the super-jumbo plane.

Lufthansa doesn't even get its first A380 till August 2009 (Singapore Airlines will be the first airline to put one in commercial service, late this year).

So Monday's flight from Frankfurt to New York, in a plane configured with about 550 seats, was basically a dress rehearsal. The passengers included Lufthansa and Airbus employees, about 60 reporters, photographers and video people, and a handful of specially invited members of Lufthansa's top-echelon frequent-flier elite program, called Hon Circle. I talked to an Englishman on board who was a member of that select elite.

"Huns Circle?" I asked in blank astonishment when he told me about the super-elite-status program.

"No, it's Hon Circle. H-O-N, for 'honors,' " he said.

Still, you'd think the Germans would have given some thought to how that sounds in English.

Whew, O.K. then. To belong to Hon, you have to fly 600,000 miles in each two-year period. That's real flying, hon, not collecting miles by shopping with your branded credit card at Costco.

Anyway, the trip was fine. The airplane itself was, as I said, notably quiet. And big. When we were over the North Sea, a pilot came on the speaker and pointed out a 747 headed westward about a half mile off our wing. "On the left side, look at the little 747," he said.

It was hard to usefully evaluate the cabin amenities, since the plane used on Monday was outfitted with a generic design. Great first-class and business-class seats, and coach was a little above average. But the flight was a demo and usual conditions did not prevail. I mean, people from every class were wandering all over, upstairs and downstairs, often with drinks in hand. Each airline that flies an A380 will have its own new cabin design, including Lufthansa, and none of them has yet showed their plans.

I was aware of one hitch on the so-called "proving flight," and that stems from the American aviation authorities being their usual humps.

Technically, the flight was operated by Airbus, with Lufthansa along as a partner. Lufthansa pilots, with Airbus pilots in the cockpit, have flown the same A380 into other countries (on test flights without passengers) without problems. And up until Sunday, they expected to do the same on the grand entrance into the United States.

Then the F.A.A. said no, claiming the Lufthansa pilots didn't meet qualifications, apparently because Lufthansa doesn't yet have title to an A380.

Lufthansa Captain Juergen Raps was at the controls for takeoff at Frankfurt and for much of the trans-Atlantic trip. But as we approached American air space, he was required to hand the JFK -landing honors over to a veteran Airbus test pilot, Wolfgang Absmeier, who brought the beast in just in time for the second half of the noon news.

Mr. Absmeier, a former airline and military pilot, told me he thought the blocking of the Lufthansa pilot from the landing was a case of "discrimination against European pilots in the U.S." Mr. Absmeier seemed to overlook the fact that he, himself, is a European pilot, but you get the picture.

"Usually on new routes like this, one of the ideas is to get feedback from the customer pilots [in this case the Lufthansa pilots], who are fully trained on the aircraft, very experienced on the aircraft, and still the FAA did not allow them to do any takeoffs or landings in the U.S. We tried everything to get the restriction lifted," he said.

Flights on the same plane this week to Hong Kong and Europe "will be conducted with Lufthansa pilots, takeoff to landing, without any problems,” he said.

Why the refusal to let Lufthansa land the plane on U.S. soil? “I cannot say any more. You can read between the lines. Think of the letter B,” he said portentously.

Oh, right. That would be B-for-Boeing, Airbus's American nemesis, which right now is eating Airbus's lunch as A380 production continues to be plagued with wiring problems and with excess weight. Boeing is making hay selling stretched versions of its workhorse 747s (which were first introduced in 1970), and racking up orders for its long-haul 777s and to-be-delivered-late-in-2007 787 Dreamliners.

I'm not sure if protecting Boeing's interest was the reason the Lufthansa pilots couldn't land in New York, but I do think the letter B was involved. Bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, last week, you might recall, I wrote about how Los Angeles International Airport and the L.A. Mayor's office pulled a slick one, pressuring Airbus at the last minute to send an A380 (this one with a nominal Qantas crew aboard) to land at LAX at the same time as the Frankfurt-JFK flight -- in what L.A. hailed as a simultaneous bi-coastal grand reception for the super-jumbos.

The press releases they pumped out in L.A. were drafted to suggest that the west coast reception -- 100,000 people would show up, they claimed -- would be the main event, not the JFK reception. These press releases conspicuously failed to note that the LAX-bound A380 was a stripped-down plane without seats or other cabin amenities, even the more basic amenities like finished bulkheads and ceilings (I know they are properly called overheads). Not a single passenger. All it carried was a small crew.

Even though some roads near LAX were shut for the anticipated crowds, and a vast viewing area set aside (none of which occurred in New York), fewer than 1,000 people actually did show. Since LAX has no gate ready to handle the double-decker plane, it was to have sat on a taxiway for days for photo ops and "tests." Evidently the "tests" were quick, as the plane was gone almost as soon as it landed.


I have to get this off my chest. There is a provocative story in today's Times headlined, "The Year Without Toilet Paper."

The story features a New York couple -- both journalists, and he's got a book deal for the stunt, natch -- so determined to have "No Impact" on the environment that they've turned off most electrical appliances, eschewn even buses and subways (the poor woman is shown in a photograph forlornly pushing a scooter through snow) and -- get this -- sworn off the use of toilet paper for a year.

Now, I am all for reducing energy waste and coming up with sensible solutions for alternative energy sources. But there comes a point when the nuts grab the mics and it is incumbent for someone to heckle from the audience.

Hey, smug No-Toilet-Paper couple! Here's a really effective way to totally zero-out your impact on the environment: Kill yourselves!

Yeah, I know. Be nice. I'll try. I'll try.


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