Thursday, March 15, 2007


Stand by for the Invasion of the A380s. And for some hype that's so masterful and that it could only have originated in Los Angeles.

Some background:

Next Monday, what had started as a plan to fly one new Airbus A380 superjumbo jet from Frankfurt to New York with more than 500 passengers on board, will instead become a full-blown national flyover extravaganza to publicize the airplane, which won't enter commercial service till 2008.

As you may know, the dozen or so airlines that have ordered A380s have said they plan to fly them with between 450 and about 550 seats, typically in three cabin-class configurations. But the Airbus A380, configured in a single all-coach class, is certified to hold 853 passengers. (And no doubt the day will come when some airline will run A380s with nearly 900 passengers on board. Big leisure-travel routes between Tokyo or London and Orlando are one logical use, for example).

On the Frankfurt-Kennedy International demonstration flight Monday, most of the more than 500 passengers will be employees of Airbus and Lufthansa, the German airline that will provide a crew to operate the flight. Some reporters also will be on board. Lufthansa has ordered 15 A380s, and when Lufthansa begins commercial A380 service in 2009, Kennedy airport will be its most important U.S. hub.

Kennedy has long since completed necessary expensive renovations -- widening taxiways and building new two-story terminal gates, for example -- to accommodate the A380. So bada-bing, Airbus and Lufthansa wisely decided to fly a fully loaded A380, with meal service and all the bells and whistles, into Kennedy to show it off on a real long-haul flight in the media capital of the world. Big publicity.

Over on the West Coast, meanwhile, Los Angeles International Airport, which would logically be the key West Coast hub for airlines flying the A380 to and from Asia, has been criticized severely for not making the necessary renovations in a timely manner. LAX only recently broke ground on a $723 million modernization of its shabby international terminal. Two A380-ready gates will be part of that project. San Francisco International, LAX's rival for trans-Pacific flying, already has six.

In other words, an A380 with passengers on board cannot now use LAX, and won't be able to for some time.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I got a press release from Los Angeles two weeks ago that stated: "Simultaneously on March 19, two separate A380 aircraft will land at LAX and New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, allowing both coasts to catch a glimpse of the future of commercial aviation."

To quote Jon Stewart, "Whaaaat?"

I was confused till I sorted it out, with no help from the Los Angeles media, which has consistently parroted the "two A380s arriving on each coast" theme.

Turns out the Los Angeles A380, operated by a Qantas crew, won't actually have any passengers. In act, it won't even have seats or interior finishings inside. Nor will it be flying Qantas livery. "The aircraft is NOT configured or equipped for commercial passenger seating," a press release jointly issued Tuesday by Qantas, LAX and Airbus finally 'fessed up inside, way down in the text.

Here is what happened. Some time ago, Airbus said it would have liked to have brought its first long-haul, fully loaded A380 demonstration flight to LAX. But LAX lagged on getting its act together, and only managed to come up with what the Los Angeles Times described on March 1 as a "parking spot" on a ramp where the empty plane could pose for pictures after landing.

The airport, the Los Angeles mayor's office, and Qantas all sprang into action, pressuring Airbus to send a second plane out on the same day -- this one operated by Qantas and departing Airbus's manufacturing plant in Toulouse, France, for arrival at LAX at the same time as the Lufthansa-operated A380 lands at Kennedy.

Airbus -- quite reasonably -- complied. Publicity city!

Grandiose press releases followed from L.A. This now was a bi-coastal event! In Los Angeles, 100,000 people are expected to be on hand to watch the plane land, and roll over t0 its parking spot, where it will be available for photo ops.

"Being part of the A380's inaugural visit to the U.S. is a clear indication that Los Angeles is a leading international gateway and that our airport is a world-class facility," said Los Angeles Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa. "The A380 is at the leading edge of the future of aviation, and Los Angeles is proud to be a part of this historic moment."

The Los Angeles Times proudly noted on March 1: "Officials announced that airplane maker Airbus has changed its mind and will bring the first U.S. test flight of the world's largest plane to Los Angeles and New York on the same day this month."

Not a word, though, about the fact that, while the plane touching down at JFK will be full of passengers, the one coming to LAX will be empty.

Oh well, what the hell. Strike up the bi-coastal bands because the A380 really does constitute a new landmark in aviation.

The A380s has its critics, of course. It's years behind schedule. But all of the airlines that have made orders so far are premium international carriers with top-notch reputations for in-flight service. (No carrier in the United States has ordered an A380).

Airbus -- which has been beat up pretty badly over manufacturing delays -- has obviously been persuaded that there is an awful lot of public interest in the U.S. this new double-decker super-jumbo. So Airbus has scheduled a subsequent demonstration flight of the Lufthansa-operated A380 from Kennedy to Chicago, from where it, and another 500-plus passengers, will board for a third demonstration flight to Washington-Dulles.

A lot of people have never heard of the A380.

That changes next week. News at 6.


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