Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A380: The Quiet Whale of the Skies

I flew in an Airbus A380 for the first time last week on a Singapore Airlines flight from Sydney to Singapore before continuing on to Frankfurt in a Boeing 747-400 and finally arriving in Stockholm in a 737-500. On the way back the aviation history timeline was retraced in chronologial order with an MD-80, a 777-300ER and again the A380. A comparison of the three long-haul airliners from the point of view of an economy class passenger is therefore in order.

The A380 has become a familiar sight in the Sydney sky since Singapore Airlines, the launch customer for the A380, started flying the aircraft on the Singapore-Sydney route in October 2007. Qantas and Emirates also operate the A380 out of Sydney.

Because it is a lot stubbier than the 747, the A380 does not look big when seen in flight. But it does look big at the gate. Think about it this way: the diameter of the fuselage of a 737 is 4 meters. The diameter of the fan of one of the Trent-900 engines on the A380 is 3 meters. This is not the largest jet engine in use though: the 777 I flew in on the way back holds the record for the largest turbofan with the GE90-115B: 3.25 meters. And it only needs two of them.

Three airbridges are used for loading the A380: one for each deck, and an additional one for the exclusive suites on the main (i.e. bottom) deck. Even though the airplane was full, boarding and un-boarding was surprisingly quick.

The cabin is bright and spacious. The nicely curved windows looks great. Windows in doors have a built-in lens so that the crew can see in the dead angle against the fuselage. Smart. Everything looks new of course, I couldn't see a single streak of oil or grease on the wing flaps from my seat.

Watching the ailerons operate at low speed is amazing: the computer moves each of the three ailerons independently for minimising load on the wing, a function known as Load Alleviation Function apparently. Plenty more technical details on flightglobal.com.

The A380 is a very quiet airplane. In cruise it is definitely quieter than the 777, and a lot quieter than the 747-400. Put on your noise-cancelling earphones and you won't hear a thing. But the most surprising thing is how quiet it is on take-off: none of the usual shaking and rattling, just an increased hum and we're airborne. The level of vibration in cruise is very low. One cannot quite forget being inside an airliner, but little by little we're getting close.

The interior and in-flight entertainment system are the same as on the refurbished 777. Actually, the new interior was initially designed for the A380, but ended up in 777s when the A380 was delayed. The seat pitch is far from generous though, and as my next-seat neighbour remarked the seats could do with an extra inch of padding.

All in all the A380 wins hands-down against the 747-400 for comfort on long-haul flights. And if Boeing manages to make the 747-800 even quieter than the A380 when it enters commercial service with Lufthansa in 2011, I may even reconsider my decision to never fly Lufthansa again on long-haul flights again.


Chris said...

I have to ask what your objection to Lufthansa is? I think Carl may be offended - I think his uncle is a Lufthansa captain...

Julien said...

My main problem with Lufthansa on long-haul flights is the cabin interior. The last time I flew with them was in a 747 between Singapore and Frankfurt. There was no individual in-flight entertainment system at all, the seat size was less than generous, and the food nothing special.

I just checked their web site and in-flight entertainment for economy class passengers is still only available on A330 and A340 aircraft. I guess they must have decided to not upgrade their 747-400 and eventually replace them with A380s and 747-800s.

I also remember that the guy in front of me argued with the flight attendant that because he had paid so much money for his ticket he had the right to recline his seat at any time he liked. That didn't go down too well as you can imagine. Nothing to do with Lufthansa obviously, but that may have tainted my experience :-)

Lufthansa on intra-European flights is a great airline though, quite punctual but pricey if you buy at the last minute. I have very good memories of flying with them over the Alps in France in the "Jumbolino" Avro RJ85.

Chris said...

Ah - then your object to Lufthansa is similar to my objection to BA or QANTAS long-haul. First rate flight crew, second rate cabin.

Anonymous said...

The last time I flew on an Airbus all I could hear was people taking the Micky out of the side stick controls, which was boring.