Drink, eat and be merry while flying on this superjumbo

The Guardian

Toulouse, January 19:

Chicken or fish! Here comes the world’s biggest airliner. The Airbus A380 weighs many times more than Howard Hughes’s legendary Spruce Goose or its British contemporary, the sadly abandoned Bristol Brabazon.

It boasts a floor area about half as big again as the latest Boeing 747-400. And — duck your heads for a moment, please, ladies and gentlemen — Orville Wright could have made his first powered flight inside the upper deck of this cloud-trumping behemoth. The A380, we are led to believe, will be the stuff of tropospheric jacuzzis, stratospheric spas, mesopspheric double beds, ionospheric cocktail bars. Here is the Queen Mary II of the skies, an airliner complete with shops, gym, and hyperbole. Well, almost, and only really for club and and first-class passengers. Quite what it will be like on board an all-economy overnight A380 flight, with up to 850 of us dribbling, snoring, crying and queuing for the lavatories, while fleets of trolleys squeeze up and down the aisles flogging duty-free and dishing up the ‘chicken-or-fish’, and ‘any-wine-at-all-with-the-meal’ is anyone’s nightmare. This, though, is surely the fate of the A380 some years down the flightpath, as we demand ever cheaper holidays in the far distant sun and build ever bigger airports to cope with ever bigger aircraft. Airbus itself predicts that global passenger traffic will double by 2020, while air freight will triple. So, why is it waiting? Where’s the tripledecker Airbus, the quadrupledecker rival Jumbo from Boeing? Actually, if you include the hold, which could double up as a club room, nursery or sleeping quarters, the A380 does have three decks.

What the porpoise-like A380 is not is the biggest aircraft of all time. That dubious honour belongs to the Hindenburg, the mammoth German airship destroyed by fire in 1937. The Hindenburg was as high as a 13-storey building and just 78ft shorter than the equally ill-fated Titanic. And, it was more of a true airliner than the A380. Its 70 spoilt passengers could throw open the windows of their cabins to inhale the ozone-rich Atlantic breezes as they cruised between Berlin and New York at a stately 82mph. The Hindenburg’s older sister, the only slightly smaller Graf Zeppelin launched in 1928, made 650 fare-paying flights, including one across the north pole, before the giant passenger airship came down to land with more than a bump.

In 1929, just in time to catch the Wall Street crash, the American industrial designer, Norman Bel Geddes, drew up plans for a 20-engined airliner boasting nine decks, four tennis courts, a solarium, restaurant, bar, gym and hotel-like rooms housed in the depths of its wings for 606 passengers served by a crew of 155. The wingspan of Airliner No 4 was to be 528ft. It would cruise through the 1930s at a relaxed 100mph at 10,000 ft, a height gained within an hour of takeoff. If it crashlanded, six onboard lifeboats and two collapsible aircraft were on hand for the rescue. Not so daft, eh? In fact, scale was always going to win over sheer speed, and bulk trounce beauty. Glamorous long-distance performance machines like the Howard Hughes-backed Convair Coronado 880/990, the magnificent T-tailed Vickers VC10 and, of course, Concorde, were flying a losing battle against the likes of Boeing’s 707 and Jumbo.

Chicken-or-fish beat champagne-and-caviare wings down as ‘bucket shops’ and no-frills flying darkened the skies with flying elephants, and, now, doubledeck airbuses. The name, I suppose, says it all really. Airbus. Big. Bulky. Reliable. Lots of them. Impressive. Wingspan, the length of nine London buses. Plenty of room on top. Hold on flightly, please.