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Arrival of giant A380 buoys LAX

Fanfare greets the first passenger flight of Qantas' huge jet.

October 21, 2008|Peter Pae | Pae is a Times staff writer.

The world's largest airliner landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday with about 450 people aboard, kicking off Southern California's first A380 passenger service and providing a welcome economic boost for the slumping airport.

Qantas Flight 93 from Melbourne, Australia, landed at 7:26 a.m. and was greeted by public officials and Hollywood celebrities including actor John Travolta and singer Olivia Newton-John. The jetliner was scheduled to make its return flight to Australia late Monday.

Passengers, most of them Australians, described the flight as very quiet and smooth. They also said they had little problem getting through customs and retrieving their bags.

"I'm surprised. I'm stunned, actually," said Phillip Prendergast, who flew with his wife, Carmen. "The customs agents were reassuring and friendly, too."

Today marked the start of the first scheduled passenger service of the new A380 at LAX, which by 2012 is expected to serve more super-jumbo jets than anywhere else.

The double-decked Airbus A380 is expected to alter the skies over Southern California much the way Boeing Co.'s 747 did when it began flying out of LAX nearly 40 years ago.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, on hand for the event, noted that the A380 was "finally here" after a two-year delay and touted how the start of the service would be an economic engine that could pump more than $600 million annually into the region and create 3,000 jobs.

The Qantas flights also will provide a boost to LAX, which is seeing flights dwindle as airlines slash service amid high fuel costs and low demand.

Total weekly departures at LAX are expected to fall nearly 20% in November compared with a year earlier. The deepest cuts have come from U.S. carriers such as United Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

But foreign carriers are mitigating some of the falloff. Next week, Emirates Airlines is scheduled to begin nonstop service from LAX to Dubai, and carriers based in South Korea are likely to increase flights to LAX after President Bush last week approved a visa waiver program for that country.

Under the program, which had been mostly confined to Western European allies, South Korean visitors will no longer need a visa if they stay in the U.S. for less than 90 days. It is intended to boost travel by friends and family of South Korean immigrants in the region, which has the largest concentration of South Koreans outside of the Asian country.

"We are expecting more travelers," said John E. Jackson, Korean Air's director of passenger marketing and sales for the Americas. The airline is the busiest Asian carrier at LAX. "We're actually finalizing our summer schedule for 2009 right now, and we intend to increase capacity."

The Qantas A380 had the limelight Monday as it parked next to a comparably diminutive Boeing 707, one of the industry's first passenger jets. This 707, built in the late 1950s, is owned and flown by John Travolta, a pilot, aviation enthusiast and Qantas booster.

Although the A380 is about 25% larger than a typical long-haul aircraft, passengers said they had few problems with the arrival process. Some observers have criticized the plane as being too large and have raised concerns that it would clog airport operations.

Also on the maiden flight was Luke Chittock, a travel agent from Perth, who is one of a handful of people who have been on every A380 inaugural service. He was on the first-ever A380 passenger flight, on Singapore Airlines, and then the first A380 flight to the U.S. on Emirates Airlines, which traveled from Dubai to New York.

"Whew! Got another one under my belt," Chittock said, adding that the flights are "all about the same now."

Qantas plans to fly the A380 from LAX to Melbourne twice a week, and on Friday the airline will begin another A380 service between Sydney and LAX. The carrier, which has ordered 20 of the $300-million planes, currently operates six flights a day between Australia and the Los Angeles airport, flying mostly 747 jumbo jets.

The airline decided to inaugurate the A380 on its service to LAX because the route is considered one of the most profitable in the world. A round-trip business-class ticket on the A380 fetched more than $18,000.

During the A380's layover in L.A. on Monday, Qantas took about 200 travel agents, journalists and public officials on a two-hour flight in the plane over California. It included a flyover the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco before returning to LAX.

In a reunion of the stars from the musical film "Grease," Travolta, wearing his pilot captain's uniform, and Newton-John, dressed as one of the flight attendants, walked down the plane's aisle together, shaking hands and promoting the new plane for Qantas.

"It's whole lot different being a crew," she said, with Travolta standing next to her. "I'm just trying not to spill the champagne."

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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