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Onboard a behemoth

About 150 passengers, including airport critics, take part in the giant Airbus A380's demo flight out of LAX.

November 30, 2007|Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writer

Danna Cope may have seemed an unlikely addition to the VIP-laden test flight of the world's largest passenger jet as it zoomed out of Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, treating about 150 invited guests to stunning views of Catalina's unmistakable outline and Big Sur's jagged cliffs.

Cope and other activists from LAX's Westchester neighborhood have long battled airport and airline officials over noise, flight patterns and modernization plans. Yet here she was, aboard a 90-minute demonstration flight of the Airbus A380 as it soared almost noiselessly over row after row of nondescript urban neighborhoods.

Cope was among elite frequent fliers, aircraft suppliers, airline employees and airport-area residents who took advantage of what some called this week's hottest ticket in town, lounging in a cabin configured for 519, sipping champagne and munching canapes while discussing the remarkable absence of noise on the giant aircraft.

Airbus executives said they've invited airport opponents on demonstration flights from four U.S. cities this year to build confidence in the aircraft.

Passengers watched the view from a camera mounted on the jet's enormous tail and applauded as the aircraft left LAX behind and lumbered out over the ocean. They jumped up as soon as the seat belt sign switched off and snapped pictures of one another.

The eight-story behemoth, with a wingspan that stretches nearly the length of a football field, is in town through today on its second visit this year. Airbus, which manufactured the massive plane, brought a stripped-down test aircraft to LAX in March.

The company had promised Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa a ride on an A380 with a finished interior this fall. But the mayor and other elected officials were grounded by a city attorney's determination that taking the ride would violate an obscure state law that prohibits public officeholders from accepting free transportation.

The mayor, who briefly toured the aircraft before the flight Thursday, groused about having to get off the plane before takeoff.

"I want to go with the people in coach," Villaraigosa said as he left first class flanked by journalists and his staff, before being hurried off the plane by airport employees remarking: "We've got eight minutes to make sure we get our takeoff spot!"

But Villaraigosa left his mark on the historic journey anyway: The early departure time -- which required pre-dawn security checks for passengers at the Imperial Terminal -- had initially been set to accommodate the mayor's schedule, aviation officials said.

After the jet left LAX at 7:35 a.m., outspoken opponents of airport expansion toasted the new plane along with business executives who support modernizing LAX to accommodate more flights.

Following years of acrimony over how best to modernize the aging airport, the two sides have agreed that a proposal to build a terminal behind Tom Bradley International Terminal with parking spots for the A380 and other large aircraft is necessary to help LAX compete with airports sporting newer facilities.

Airbus and airlines have repeatedly criticized LAX for being slow to prepare for the A380, but are now cautiously optimistic that a $121-million investment in two new parking spots and other improvements will help. Concern remains about the facility's ability to handle multiple daily operations of the aircraft by 2012.

Qantas plans to start commercial service on the jet at LAX next fall.

LAX-area residents who were on the flight said they hope the A380, which Airbus says is quieter and has a lower emission rate than its competitors, will eventually replace louder and higher-emitting jets.

Passenger Michael C.R. Collins, executive vice president of LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau, observed: "The loudest noise is the air conditioning, and I think that will be its appeal."

For Cope, the Westchester activist who also chairs a committee that advises city officials on airport operations issues, the spectacular view and onboard amenities weren't enough to distract her from her longtime concerns.

"We laud efforts to try to get fleets more environmentally friendly," Cope said. "But we don't want them to increase capacity at LAX. It doesn't make sense from a security and safety point of view."

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