Oct. 25: A flying palace, tall as a seven-storey building and half a football field long, today raised the bar for deluxe aviation and ended the Boeing 747’s 37-year reign as the planet’s biggest airliner.
The Rs 1,267-crore Airbus A380 completed its maiden commercial flight this afternoon, carrying 455 passengers from Singapore to Sydney on a trip more about caviar than commuting.
Some of the passengers were ensconced in luxury suites and double beds designed by French fashion house Givenchy, eating marinated lobsters and sauteed foie gras off fine bone china and washing them down with Dom Perignon Rose served in crystal glasses.
“I have never been in anything like this in the air before,” said Australian Tony Elwood, reclining with wife Julie on the double bed in their first-class Singapore Airlines (SIA) suite for which he had paid $50,000 (Rs 19.8 lakh).
The airline held an online charity auction to drum up publicity for the flight, SQ380, and people paid between Rs 22,175 and Rs 40.65 lakh for their seats, raising Rs 4.99 crore for three social service bodies.
On a normal day, the fare on the route on the A380 would be Rs 32,550 (economy class), Rs 1.44 lakh (business class) and Rs 1.95 lakh (first-class suite), an airline official said.
The passengers were from 35 countries, 11 of them Indians. The youngest was a ten-month-old boy from Singapore and the oldest a 91-year-old Californian who had been on the world’s first Boeing 747 commercial flight between New York and London in 1970.
Briton Julian Hayward, a dotcom billionaire who made the highest bid of $100,380 for two suites, was the first on board as passengers turned a long-haul flight into an airborne party.
Some were still standing when the giant double-decker sped down the Changi airport runway and took off into aviation history at 8am (5.30am Indian time), drawing huge applause from nearly everyone aboard.
Hundreds on the ground clicked away with their camera phones as a string quartet gave the plane a farewell.
Inside the plane, passengers lined up to get autographs from chief pilot Robert Ting, who came out of the cockpit. “Flying this aircraft is like flying any other big jet,” said Ting, one of four pilots and a crew of 30 on board.
Some 70 media personnel, including TV crews, jammed the aisles trying to interview passengers. Flight attendants squeezed past, smiling and posing for photographers.
Despite the gourmet food and the historic occasion, what seemed to impress most was how quiet the airliner is.
“I was impressed,” said Thomas Lee, invited by SIA as a special guest because he was also on the 747’s maiden flight. “The 747 was a lot louder.”
Just over seven hours later, the plane emerged from low-lying cloud to fly over Sydney’s famous harbour before touching down on time, a contrast to two years of delays that pushed its European manufacturer Airbus SAS into a loss. A jazz trio welcomed the flying luxury yacht to Sydney.
“Of course it was the first flight, so you get most of the first-class treatment. I hope they keep that up,” said Michael Sim, who paid about 30 per cent more than he would have on other flights.
Suresh Mysore Subraman and wife Thara Laxshmi Visvanathan, tourists from India, paid $4,180 (Rs 1.65 lakh).
If the A380 were operating from India – which isn’t likely for the next four years – the return fare on the Calcutta-Singapore-Sydney route today would be around Rs 46,200 in the economy class.It would be Rs 1,71,000 in the business class and Rs 2,95,000 in luxury class.
The Boeing 747 generally carries about 400 passengers. The A380 is capable of carrying 853 in an all-economy class configuration.
SIA, however, opted for 471 seats in three classes: 12 luxury suites, each enclosed by sliding doors, and 60 business class and 399 economy class seats. One suite was left empty today for display.
The plane was delivered to SIA on October 15, a year and a half behind schedule. SIA will be the sole operator for ten months.
Analysts say the A380 will provide much needed extra capacity and greater efficiency for SIA on the busy Singapore-Sydney route, and the Singapore-London route expected to start in February with the delivery of the second plane.
SIA has ordered 19 A380s, hoping to benefit from the five to 10 per cent annual growth in global air traffic. Dubai-based Emirates, Airbus’s largest A380 customer with 55 on order, will take its first delivery in August 2008.
Not all analysts are convinced the four-engine plane will be a success. “I see there’s some demand for the A380, but it’s an expensive way to address a small market,” said Standard & Poor’s Equity Research analyst Shukor Yusof.
He said the market was set to be dominated by mid-sized, long-haul, two-engine aircraft such as the rival Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which offers greater fuel efficiency. The Dreamliner, expected to make its first commercial flight in May, has received 700 orders compared with the A380’s 165.