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Airbus A380: a memorable flight experience

One of my early posts on this blog was a comment on the commercial launch of the Airbus A380 in October 2007. I never ceased to be amazed by the steady flow of search engine traffic I got around this topic. Having recently had the opportunity to fly on one of Singapore Airlines’ A380, I feel compelled to revisit my initial post and share some of my flight impressions.

A380 at the gate

Much has been said about the fact that airports have to invest to accommodate the dual deck boarding requirement of the A380. The boarding is indeed quite fast in spite of the large number of passengers (more than 400).

However the check-in experience did not go through a similar overhaul, and there the pinch can be felt. The wait was on the edge of excruciating, and it certainly did not help that a large group of travellers to an ashram in India clogged the process that day. This is probably the only part of the experience that can be significantly improved… once in the plane, it is an entirely different story.

You notice immediately three main differences compared to even recent aircrafts.

The first striking difference is the legroom, even in economy class. The layout of the cabin with a lot of overhead space and the very large windows add to the impression of roominess.

The second difference is the low noise and vibration level in the cabin. If you are used to the rumble and roar of a 747 or a 777, you are in for a real surprise. The superjumbo accelerates so effortlessly and silently that you barely realize that the plane has left the ground.

Last but not least, the third difference lies in the interactive in-flight system. I guess that some people would point out that it does not offer a touch screen – however, I have to say flat out that this is by far the best remote-based user interface I have tried in a plane.

There are a few simple things to expect from any user interface: consistent, intuitive, visually pleasing, and that there is little to no lag time in terms of responsiveness. Yet you would be surprised how many in-flight systems fail to deliver on the basics. The A380’s in-flight system has a few very small flaws but it clearly sets a new standard – I am curious whether it is the work of Airbus’s or Singapore Airlines’ interface designers?

By the way, the interactive system does not limit itself to entertainment (movies, music, games) and to flight information. It also offers the Sun StarOffice productivity suite – you can launch a word processor or a spreadsheet program, and plug a USB key in the seat to save your work. The seat connectivity also includes a video-in feed, a network cable plug and even the economy class seats feature Empower electric power plugs.

If you are interested, you can watch more screen shots and pictures on Flickr: cabin and interior, entertainment menu screens shots, flight information menu screen shots, productivity menu screen shots.

I was really impressed by the incredible attention to detail in order to improve every single aspect of the flight experience. In my humble opinion, all other things being equal (price, class…) it will be very hard to beat, let alone match the new benchmark established by the A380. In fact, bar the seat recline and the meal, my A380 economy class experience on Singapore airlines did not seem too far off from what some US carriers offer in business class.

I have talked mainly about the “product” until now, so let me continue and conclude with a few words about the communication.

In my initial post, I wrote about Singapore Airlines’ dedicated A380 web site, a key element of their marketing to support the plane. There is also a significant presence through paper billboards and digital displays in the airline’s main operations hub, Changi Airport. The airport is featured prominently, given the effort to adapt the airport infrastructure for the A380.

The rest of the communication does not emphasize the benefits of the A380 but on which routes the plane will be flown.

This complements the significant word of mouth activity around the new plane. There were actually tens of passengers taking pictures of the plane before take-off and after landing… and the search engine traffic on my own blog around the A380 is another anecdotal evidence of the lively online buzz.

The A380 success is not assured yet, given the economic uncertainty facing the world economy and the increasing pressure on oil prices that airlines are facing. Regardless, the Airbus A380 is highly likely to be considered in the future as a key milestone in the evolution of the aeronautics industry.