by Roger Thiedeman
On Thursday June 7, 2007, as if on cue, thunderstorms sweeping Sydney, Australia ceased and the sun poked out to enable the first Airbus A380 passenger flight ‘Down Under’ to take off nearly on schedule. For the second time this year, Airways was privileged to be invited to participate in such a demonstration, the first being in February from Toulouse, France (Airways, May 2007).
The previous day, Airways also attended a media briefing, at the Sydney Intercontinental Hotel, conducted by Airbus COO John Leahy and Laurent Rouaud, VP market forecasts and research. Leahy spoke about A380 delivery delays caused by a “production snafu” when wiring designed separately on CADCAM in 3-D (three dimensions) in France and 2-D in Germany “almost worked” when meshed—but not quite. However, he stressed, this had not delayed certification of the type. One of those certification requirements specified a 90-second emergency evacuation of the airplane with a complement of 852 passengers and 23 crew, in the dark, and with half its doors randomly blocked. Yet this was accomplished in only 78 seconds.
On the issue of the A380 freighter and delay-induced order cancellations by US cargo titans FedEx and UPS, Leahy stated that FedEx has indicated its willingness “to look at the A380 again when (the passenger airplane) is in service”, but the same cannot be said for UPS. Introduction of the A380F is slated for 2014-2016, although Airbus will meanwhile concentrate its manufacturing resources on the passenger airplane.
Amongst the A380’s attributes extolled by John Leahy were its high-quality cabin air system, with more oxygen to ensure less passenger fatigue, a slow approach speed equal to that of the A320, a smaller and more compact noise footprint than comparable types, and, most importantly, the airplane’s environmentally favorable characteristics which have earned it the nickname of ‘jolly green giant’.
Laurent Rouaud spoke of the importance to the A380’s fortunes of the Asia-Pacific market, adding that by 2020 Asia will be the world’s number one region for air travel (with North America second), with 70% of A380s built expected to be sold in the Asia-Pacific market. Expanding on Rouaud’s statistics and projections, John Leahy suggested that a stretched, single-class, 1,000-seat A380 would suit LCCs (low-cost carriers) on such routes as Bangalore–Delhi, in India. According to Leahy, the 2¾-hour flight would offer lower seat-mile costs than the 2½-day train trip.
Back at Sydney Airport on June 7, some 280 passengers boarded the 519-seat A380 (F-WWJB; MSN 007) parked inside a Qantas hangar. Joining John Leahy and Qantas Executive General Manager John Borghetti onboard were numerous VIPs, Qantas frequent flyers, staff members, media representatives, and celebrities. Notable amongst them were General Peter Cosgrove, formerly chief of the Australian Defence Force and now a Qantas board member, popular TV host and entertainer Kerri-Anne Kennerley—Australia’s Oprah—and 91-year-old Nancy Bird-Walton, pioneering Australian aviatrix.
Pushback began at 1307, but storm-delayed arriving and departing traffic at Australia’s busiest international airport saw the A380 line up for takeoff from Runway 16R at 1333. After a short takeoff roll (not surprising, given our relatively low weight), the airplane climbed out over Botany Bay. More remarkable, though, was the low noise level of those four mighty Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofans. Indeed, the A380’s quietness became an instant talking point amongst most passengers, with this editor’s comments on the subject being quoted, and attributed to Airways, in the next day’s Herald Sun, Australia’s largest selling daily newspaper.
MSN 001 flying over Sydney, November 2005. Photo courtesy of Airbus.
Soon after takeoff, the pilots showed the Airbus off to Sydney’s citizens, with low passes over Sydney Harbour and the iconic ‘coathanger’ Harbour Bridge (75 years old this year) and Opera House. Those of us not in window seats observed the spectacle on seatback video monitors as well as the larger bulkhead-mounted screens.
Then, pointing the A380’s nose in the direction of the national capital Canberra, 228nm (422km) to the southwest, the crew turned off the seatbelt signs—this being our cue to leave our seats and start exploring both decks, as we were encouraged to do—before placing the airplane in a steep climb.
Although seat pitch in coach (economy) was another favorable aspect of the A380, at least on this pre-delivery demonstration example, it was an eye-opener to see how ‘the other half lived’ in the luxurious business and first cabins. The opportunity was taken to sample all types of seating and amenities throughout the aircraft, whilst enjoying canapés and liquid refreshments—including Dom Perignon’s finest ‘bubbly’—served by the cabin crew. A festive atmosphere at this ‘cocktail party’ aloft saw guests from all sections of the airplane mingling and chatting, with old acquaintances renewed and new ones made.
Airways was pleased to speak to Nancy Bird-Walton, one of Australia’s earliest woman pilots, who was taught to fly in 1933 by aeronautical legend Sir Charles Kingsford Smith. Comfortably—and almost regally—ensconced in her lower-deck, first class seat, the charming and affable nonagenarian related how she had been brought to Sydney Airport that morning under the pretext of an inspection tour of the refurbished and recently re-acquired Qantas Boeing 707-138B—one of the first 707s delivered to the airline in 1959 (Airways, ‘Mailbag’, October 2006 & February 2007)—soon to be placed on permanent display at the Qantas Founders Outback Museum in Longreach, Queensland (Airways, April 2003). But, with girlish glee, Ms Bird-Walton told Airways how pleasantly surprised she was to discover that she would be flying on the Airbus A380 instead. She added that her flight aboard “this marvelous aircraft”, for which she was grateful to Qantas, was a highlight of her long life in aviation.
When Canberra passed beneath our behemoth, most passengers didn’t even notice, so busy were they enjoying the total A380 experience and conviviality. Eventually, at 1456, the airplane returned to terra firma, again on Sydney’s Runway 16R. Deplaning passengers appeared reluctant to end their newfound love affair with the A380, ignoring the buses waiting to return us to the terminal while lingering on the ramp to have happy snaps taken with the airplane as a gigantic backdrop.
With Australia’s first A380 passenger flight (albeit a non-revenue one) successfully concluded, the stage is now set for the August 2008 introduction of the first of 20 examples for flag-carrier Qantas. What that will mean to the Australian flying public and, in particular, their hip pockets, only time will tell. But the prognosis is for certainly interesting and possibly exciting times ahead.
(Airways sincerely thanks Simon Rushton, Qantas media relations manager, and Ted Porter, of Airbus, Sydney, for their kind invitation to participate in this memorable event, and for generous assistance with the preparation of this report.)
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