Who knows where aviation might be in the next 20 years?
The lower deck of Airbus A 380, a double-deck jet airliner with excellent comfort and space, Copenhagen, April 27, 2018
It was, ironically, a fake news picture that saw this “plane of thought” lift off. My colleague Charles and I were talking about a Photoshopped image of an Airbus A380 super-jumbo in South African Airways (SAA) livery, which has been used, incorrectly, ad nauseam by news organisations wanting to illustrate their stories about the ongoing chaos at our national airline.
SAA was, at one stage – back in the 1990s – almost in a position where it could afford to buy one of the massive aircraft, which can take just under 500 passengers in standard configuration and has a range of 10 000km or more. Knowing what we know now, though, had they committed themselves then to acquiring an A380, it would have made the airline’s current mess even worse. Such a lot has changed in the airline business in the past 20 to 25 years.
When the A380 was launched, Airbus was justifiably proud of the fact that its cutting-edge tech meant it was a highly efficient flying machine. One of the Airbus people told me on a tour of the factory in Toulouse that its fuel consumption per passenger kilometre worked out roughly the same as for a medium-sized car. But earlier this year, Airbus announced it would be ending production of the behemoth.
The reality is that the airline business – one of the most cut-throat and efficient (when done properly, not like at SAA) – had found that, even though the enormous planes were fuel-efficient by those now outdated standards, there were problems filling them to capacity. In the meantime, more efficient engines meant twin-engined new-generation jets like the Airbus A350 and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry anything up to 300 passengers even more economically.
Moscow, Russia – June 20, 2019: Aircraft Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner A7-BCU of Qatar Airways landing at Domodedovo international airport in Moscow on a blue sky background at sunny evening
Both Charles and I lamented the fact that A380s would eventually disappear from the skies. That’s because, apart from its size, it was one of the best passenger jet aircraft in which to travel. He had flown on A380s from Emirates and I have been on A380s from Air France, Lufthansa, British Airways and Qatar. On all A380s, I travelled economy class and it was one of the best experiences in that part of the plane I have yet had.
There is nothing special about the seating in any of the different economy configurations of the A380s I have flown – seats are about as wide and legroom about the same as in most inter-continental planes – but the A380’s cabin, both upper and lower decks, feels much more airy. The air conditioning and air recirculation system is somehow better than in other aircraft. The lighting was also specially designed to be soothing.
This all means you don’t feel as stressed, as hemmed in, or as stuck in a box as you do on other flights. I got the perfect illustration of this on a long, long trip to Myanmar (Burma) a few years ago, on Qatar. First leg was to Doha on a Boeing 787 – medieval torture: hot, cramped and stressful. On the A380 flight to Bangkok, I picked up a trick from some internet research, booking myself a seat next to a window on the top deck at the rear. Here, you get an extra bin for your bits and bins next to your arm rest because the cabin wall is further away than normal. It feels like a mini-Business Class seat.
Heathrow, London, UK – January 28, 2016: Airbus A380-861 (A7-APE), operated by Qatar Airways departing Heathrow Airport, UK bound for the Arabian Gulf city of Doha, capital of Qatar.
The A380, perhaps because of its bulk is, I believe, better able to stand up to turbulence and I cannot remember a bumpy flight. For me, the A380 will always be a successful and graceful attempt to push the boundaries of aeronautics – but at the same time, it stands as a warning, that the future everybody was predicting (of an abundance of mega-carriers) never came to pass. Who knows where aviation might be in the next 20 years?
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