Wednesday, January 19, 2005

 

Welcome to the sardine tin!

For all the millions of travelers who agree that airports just aren't crowded enough...
Airbus Unveils Europe's Biggest Aviation Hope

By MARK LANDLER

TOULOUSE, France, Jan. 18 - Europe heralded a new era in air travel here on Tuesday, christening the Airbus A380, a gargantuan double-deck plane dedicated to the principle that size matters.

As a blue curtain rose in an assembly hall here to reveal the A380, the plane loomed like some kind of preternatural earthbound bird - with a 262-foot wingspan, a 239-foot-long fuselage, a cabin that can comfortably seat 555 and a takeoff weight when fully loaded of 1.2 million pounds.

It was welcomed by a retinue of European leaders, including President Jacques Chirac of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder of Germany, for whom the A380 represents not just an ambitious industrial project but a proud symbol of the economic integration of Europe.

"It is a technological feat and a great European success," Mr. Chirac declared to an audience of 5,000 officials, airline executives, suppliers and journalists. "When it takes to the skies, it will carry the colors of our continent, and our technological ambitions, to even greater heights."

The A380's maiden flight is not scheduled until March. But the pomp and ceremony of Tuesday's unveiling underscored the critical importance of this plane to Airbus and its fierce battle with Boeing. Airbus, part of the European consortium EADS, surpassed Boeing in 2004 in the number of planes delivered to airlines for the second consecutive year. With the A380, the company, which is owned by Europe's aerospace industry, will dominate the lucrative segment of very large planes that Boeing pioneered in the 1970's with the 747.

Mr. Schröder gently lampooned the competition, recalling the doubts of non-Europeans in Airbus's early days, with remarks like, "Well, if the Europeans ever get their act together," and then adding, "Lord knows if they will ever do it."

His comments carried a hint of defiance. He urged the European Commission to negotiate aggressively with the United States in its continuing trade dispute over subsidies to Airbus. And he extolled Europe's cooperative style as a cornerstone of the A380 project. "There is the tradition of good old Europe that has made this possible," Mr. Schröder said, alluding to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's quip about "old Europe" before the Iraq war.

Building the world's largest passenger plane, of course, is not the same thing as turning a profit on it. Airbus gathered the heads of the 14 carriers that have ordered the A380 to testify to its appeal. Several said they needed a larger plane to serve congested airports like Heathrow outside London. Air France, Lufthansa, Korean Air and Federal Express are among those that have ordered the A380. But no American passenger carrier has signed up, and two long-haul airlines, United and Northwest, are not likely to, according to Chris Avery, a J. P. Morgan analyst in London.

The ultimate arbiters of the A380 will be the airlines and the passenger. Singapore Airlines will be the first to test the plane in the market, when it begins flying it to London and Sydney in mid-2006.

Certainly, the A380 has the potential to be unlike anything now flying. Though it will have only 35 percent more seats than a 747, it will have 49 percent more usable passenger space. That leaves open possibilities like in-flight bars, lounges, shops and gyms.

Skeptics say cost-conscious carriers will squeeze in more seats; the A380 is able to carry 800 people.
It seems to me the one question nobody is bringing up is, How the f*ck are you going to get all those people on and off the damn plane? It takes 40 minutes to load a plane and 20 minutes to unload it now; how long is it going to take when they start flying this behemoth?

I'm serious, airlines that buy this monster are going to have to reconfigure the gates they plan to use for it. And everyone is going to have to get used to it. Disgorging 550 or 800 passengers at once - can you imagine what that will do to baggage claim? Of course, this is not going to land anywhere in the USA for awhile.

The real area we need a breakthrough in commercial passenger aviation is not capacity but speed. Concorde never made it commercially; we need advances in hypersonic or suborbital aviation to cut the time it takes to fly from, say, New York to Los Angeles from 6 hours to 2; or New York to London from 8 hours to 3; or Los Angeles to Sydney from 13 hours to 5. Why not? It may not happen soon, but that's where we need the investment and research.
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