Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Super-size yourself on board the super-size airliner

Admire, as you board the aircraft, the nimble way that the designers have squeezed in a squash court between the library and the swimming pool. As was revealed at the Airbus A380 unveiling in Toulouse this week, these perks are restricted to first and business-class passengers. On the lower level of the world's biggest plane, where the economy cabin is located, the main innovation is a McDonald's: the burger chain is a leading Airbus sponsor. Rumours suggest that Air France has refused to accept fast food aboard its 10 jets, but that a compromise has been reached in the shape of Pret a Manger.

Admire, as you board the aircraft, the nimble way that the designers have squeezed in a squash court between the library and the swimming pool. As was revealed at the Airbus A380 unveiling in Toulouse this week, these perks are restricted to first and business-class passengers. On the lower level of the world's biggest plane, where the economy cabin is located, the main innovation is a McDonald's: the burger chain is a leading Airbus sponsor. Rumours suggest that Air France has refused to accept fast food aboard its 10 jets, but that a compromise has been reached in the shape of Pret a Manger.

And now, the real story. You may have inferred that the new plane will boast acres of space for amenities such as an ice rink and a piano bar. Airbus, the maker, can create whatever expectations it likes - because each airline kits out the interior as it likes. Flying on the A380 will be an upstairs-downstairs affair. Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic is the first UK customer for the new jet, promises that those in Upper Class can benefit from a casino and double beds - "so there will be two ways to get lucky aboard a Virgin plane". Downstairs, forget shops and restaurants. Prepare to see a sea of seats. Those of us on the lower deck can expect a modest area to stretch our legs. That apart, the experience will be like sitting in a classroom or a multiplex cinema, only for 12 hours at a stretch.

Curiously, the world has a constant and expensive surplus of aircraft seats. As you read this, millions of them are flying empty - on the average flight, one in four goes unsold. So how does the industry respond? By building planes that have even more to fill.

Aviation is in a right old mess. With a few exceptions, airlines have historically failed to make sensible returns on investment. The hundreds of jets lined up forlornly in the deserts of California testify to their over-ambition.

The arrival of the Airbus A380 may seal the fate of dinosaurs like the DC10 and the Lockheed Tristar. The new jet presents the world with an elegant solution to aircraft noise and air pollution: for each A380, two thirsty, dirty and noisy jets could be grounded. Yet judging from the experience of the Boeing 747, which entered service 35 years ago this week, the new Airbus will simply increase our appetite for travel.

While the leaders of Britain, France, Germany and Spain were providing unsolicited testimonials for the A380, a storm cloud broke over the runway at Toulouse. The downpour left the sky looking the same soggy grey as Boeing Field in Seattle - a notoriously damp part of the world. Boeing, whose reign as maker of the planet's biggest plane is about to end, is vituperative about the European project. Not enough demand, says the US-based manufacture, to justify the mega-jet's huge development costs. The future of air travel is the 7E7, about half the size but built to fly efficiently - and profitably - on routes that currently have no direct service. If people in Manchester could fly non-stop to Montreal or Mumbai, says Boeing, the need for huge aircraft serving hubs such as Paris and Dubai would dwindle. The "Dreamliner", as Boeing calls it, will also make very long flights viable. Travellers would surely prefer to fly non-stop from Heathrow to Honolulu or Perth than change planes in Los Angeles or Singapore.

The trouble is: Heathrow is full. Passengers may despair at the congestion at Britain's busiest airport, but they keep demanding to travel through it. The relationship between the A380 and Heathrow is a marriage of convenience: each needs the other to succeed, which is why the airport has ploughed nearly £500m into getting ready for the jet.

Building a plane to transform the world is one thing; bending an airport so it fits is quite another. The size of the A380 demands many clever and expensive new tricks from the airports. Systems must be devised to get 550 people and their baggage on and off smoothly and swiftly. The sensible course of action would be to devote the new Terminal 5 to the jet. Yet British Airways, for whom the facility is being built, remains aloof from its competitors: it has not ordered the plane. So facilities will have to be crowbarred into the existing space of Terminal 3, a building designed for a smaller-scale era of flying.

Travel Back In Time On The 'Megajet'

The Jumbo age arrived with the first Boeing 747 flight. It left New York 35 years ago today - and arrived at Heathrow three hours late because of a power problem.

The prospect of delays preys on the minds of airline bosses. When a 747 with a full load "goes technical", finding food, drink and rooms for 350 people is tricky enough. If beds have to be located for more than 500 passengers, the operation looks even more daunting. While the jury is still out on the A380's viability, investing in hotels near Heathrow could be rewarding.

Two more matters arising: first, how terrorists will respond. The 747 became an instant trophy for hijackers and bombers, and the A380 presents an even bigger target in every sense.

The second is more cheerful: what to call the new plane? The utilitarian "A380" hardly sets the pulse racing - I have in the past questioned the wisdom of naming any aircraft after the Torbay bypass.

The press has hitherto described the new plane as a "SuperJumbo", but this borrows too heavily from Boeing. Other ideas include "Superjigsaw" (due to its multinational origins), "MegaJet" and "MandyJet" (Peter Mandelson was a guest at the launch of the Euro-jet).

Surely, though, the name should be "Routemaster", in honour of the incredibly successful London double-decker bus that is due to retire at the same time as the A380 starts work. And as with the bus, on the new Airbus there's always more room on top.

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