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Reaching new heights in airspace

The A380 debuts in the U.S. with room for 491 fliers and then some -- but still there are lines at the bar and the 15 bathrooms.

March 20, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

New York — 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.

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