The bigger the beast, the bigger the roar. But the A380 is the beast that purrs. As the first commercial flight from the UK of the new double-decker "super-jumbo" trundled down the runway at Heathrow, bound for Singapore, it was the gentle hum, rather than the usual shrieking banshee, from the engines, that was most striking.
This being the inaugural flight, departure had an unusual air to it. The London Symphony Orchestra serenaded passengers at the gate, while Singapore Airlines staff handed out champagne and Tiger beer. The atmosphere was hugely convivial. Perhaps airlines should make a habit of it, as I've rarely seen so many relaxed passengers boarding a flight. There were no queues for boarding, though you would expect even Heathrow to ensure there were no delays on the first flight.
To be fair, BAA has been prepared for the A380 for some time. The first A380 started flying between Singapore and Sydney last October, 20 months after SingaporeAirlinesintended to start services. The main delay was the need to install 310 miles of wiring, and these hold-ups led to resignations among Air-bus's senior management. Check-in and embarkation at Heathrow underwent an 18-month, £105m redevelopment to accommodate the aircraft and a pier was demolished to make space for the its massive wingspan. Now, four new gates at the end of Terminal Three accommodate up to 2,200 people. Arrival areas have had to be remodelled, and the runway shoulders had to be widened and strengthened.
As this redesigned airport infrastructure suggests, the A380 is very, very big. With an overall length of 240ft (73m), height of 79ft (24.1m) and a 262ft (79.8m) wingspan it is slightly longer and significantly wider than its main rival, the Boeing 747-400. Its design was accompanied by talk of swimming pools and bowling alleys, though cynics pointed out that a no-frills approach could squeeze in 850 passengers in economy. The reality, at least with Singapore Airlines - the only carrier so far to take delivery of the aircraft - falls in between. The Singapore Airlines A380 has 471 seats in three classes (about 100 more than a 747-400): with 12 first-class cabins (sorry, suites) on the main deck; 60 business-class seats on the upper deck; and 399 economy class seats, across both decks, all served by 23 cabin crew.
The aircraft is entered by lower and upper gangways. Inside, the two decks are connected by a circular staircase at the rear with a grander staircase which leads down to the first-class cabins, rather like that on an ocean liner. Despite this, the aircraft might not strike you as quite the cathedral of aviation you would expect. The seat arrangements seem to shrink the aircraft, and those of a claustrophobic nature may wish to travel economy class on the upper deck, where there is only one segment of economy. The lower deck has three, long segments, each curtained off, of economy seats in 3-4-3 format.
For now, Singapore Airlines will operate one flight a day between London and Singapore and the airline has unquestionably raised the bar when it comes to enabling passengers to while away the hours inside their aluminium sausage. Economy passengers get more leg room, and a larger 10in screen; business passengers can gaze at a 15in LCD screen and sink into a full-flat bed; the first-class suites get full-sized mattresses, and Givenchy duvets and cushions, and for couples, the beds in the middle two seats can be converted to a double bed.
The airline and Airbus are keen to promote its fuel economy. The A380 burns 17 per cent less fuel per seat than other large aircraft and produces only 75g of CO2 per passenger per km (most cars produce at least 130g, and the Boeing 747 around 101g of CO2 per passenger per km). It also produces 75 per cent less noise than its Boeing rival. Airbus has also discreetly trialled A380 test flights with biofuels.
While the aircraft may be new, some things never change-theaircraftdeparted 35 minutes late. But, having flown over Hanover, Lodz, and the Sea of Azov, we arrived exactly on time, 12 hours later in Singapore. For reasons of fuel economy, flight times are slightly slower than on the 747. The good news for nervous fliers is that the design and size of the wings means that the effect of turbulence is perceptibly softened.
The response of passengers was overwhelmingly positive. "It's awe-inspiring," said John Warren from Bristol. "I was planning to head for Perth over Easter and when I saw the A380 was available it was a no-brainer. It took off so gracefully. It just hung in the air and away it went. It's a truly wonderful experience."
Howard Long from London was equally enthusiastic. "I looked online last week for a ticket and thought I had to go for it. I didn't even realise we had taken off. I only knew when the wheels were retracted."
The crew, cocooned in its cockpit on the lower deck, welcomed the aircraft. "It's an extremely easy aircraft to fly," said Captain B K Chin. "It's very agile and once you are in the air it doesn't behave like you'd expect a plane this size to. It's extremely easy to manipulate."
However, some passengers, both in economy and business class, expressed disquiet about the lack of portholes (unlike the Boeing, the A380 hold doors are windowless and there are only two tiny, opaque windows by the toilets on the lower deck); and, from some seats, you cannot look through a window at all.
While Lucy Bishop welcomed the extra two inches she had in economy, she made an observation that others might agree with. "You do have more space, which is great, but the reality is you're still going to get off a 12-hour flight feeling like you've gone 10 rounds with a grizzly bear."