Tony France: Qantas Got it Right, Almost – The Airbus A380

Tony France, the Traveling Optimist, is back with another post, and this is a long one. Last time Tony generated a lot of discussion, so let’s hope this does the same.

Friends of mine were planning on getting married in New Zealand during their down under Summer – Christmas wedding season of October – December. I started shopping the three main carriers from the United States, Air New Zealand, Qantas and United. I discovered that Qantas will introduce the A380 to Los Angeles in late October. Even though it will not operate to Auckland I went to the Qantas website to see if this airborne beast would offer something different enough to capture my attention and pull me off of the nonstop services both they and Air New Zealand provide.

They did. Qantas has translated size in to a rare spaciousness for the three premium cabins. In their highest density, United’s 747s carried 420 in an 18F, 32C and 370Y configuration. Virtually all Qantas and this airplane has done is take those same numbers, increase the size of the Business Class cabin by 40 and put the whole thing upstairs! Even with only one boarding bridge, getting on the plane at least should be fairly smooth thanks to a total of four aisles and two stair cases to distribute the payload and alleviate the herding sensation. Only in standard coach with 332 seats set in the standard 3-4-3 layout will the density feel no different whatsoever between the A380 and the 747.

What I don’t like about the Qantas configuration is easier and faster to explain than what I do like, which is plenty. For those of us who are claustrophobic, not having the enclosed confines of a Singapore Airlines or Emirates First Class Suite is a good thing. No paired seating, though, is sure to be something Virgin Atlantic will make much of when their version of the A380 debuts with Upper Class seating. Also, having the seat so far removed from the side wall to allow for the lie-flat feature to pivot, is unfortunate. According to their seat map the chair itself is a good two, almost three feet in to the cabin area. I’m a sightseer when I fly and, even in the middle of a 15 hour flight, I occasionally like to look out the window to see the stars, clouds, thunderstorms, holiday lights, city lights, fireworks, whatever. I especially like to watch the wing flex a little muscle during take off or turbulence or maybe spot another airplane on a parallel track or something. Maybe I’m supposed to be too busy, pre-occupied and otherwise above such things to care but if they had reversed this set-up I am of the opinion it would be more appealing.

Speaking of the wing, I have seen some videos of the A380 on takeoff from the passenger’s perspective. Particularly the view taken during Cranky Flier’s visitor flight on Emirates out of Los Angeles (below), I strongly advise any sightseer like myself to make sure they are seated either behind or in front of this massive construction. Impressive it is but if it could block out the sun it would because it surely obstructs the passenger view of everything else and will make a 15 hour flight even more challenging that it is already.

As for the back of the bus, fear not, coach flyer; despite the aforementioned density of 332 seats in 3-4-3 layout the one HUGE upgrade to this cabin is the introduction of 110v power ports to each bank of seats. Finally even coach customers are acknowledged for needing and wanting to use their laptops for work or their own entertainment in flight. This simple, phenomenal offering has instantly rendered anything by United and Air New Zealand both dead in the water…air. Who needs 160 channels of film and music when my own library can boast several thousand titles of songs, movies and games, completely unedited, personally selected and on a laptop screen up to 17 inches across without PA interruptions? Heaven!

With all respect to Coach for that is certainly where much of my personal flying takes place, I would not have placed First and Economy so close together on the same level. Even with priority boarding I would not necessarily want such a divergence in my customer base to mingle on the jet bridge. Neither would I want economy sized traffic traipsing through the refinements of First Class on the way back to Steerage even if they are, to borrow a line from “Titanic,” quite good on this ship. Moreover, placing Premium Economy above standard coach and just behind Business Class works for an illusion of exclusivity during the flight until it is time to deplane and there is only one jet bridge for the aircraft. That puts Premium Economy waiting to come down the back stairs and deplane behind standard coach. Through the galley. And past the lavatories. After 16 hours. Ew.

The biggest concern is having the entire Business Class cabin placed on the upper deck. For customers with physical disabilities how will a Business Class customer in a motorized chair board an aircraft through a single, main-level jet bridge and get to his seat upstairs? I saw no accommodation for an elevator, chair lift or other powered device to transit such a passenger from the main level. The 747 rarely ever had that problem because at least one cabin for each class was always on the main floor.

If the Business Class passenger cannot navigate stairs will they receive a complimentary upgrade to First Class? I doubt any Business Class passenger for any reason will accept a downgrade to steerage without a loud and long fight right then and there.

I like, no LOVE the 747-400. Economically the airplane may be nearing the end of its useful life but an airline with deep pockets can put an onboard product into the older aircraft to match Qantas’ investment with the A380. Air New Zealand is a solid service oriented airline that well knows the challenges of ultra-long international service. It has nonetheless gone two-cabin in its configurations and, as a classic example of a long-and-thin airline, is in no need of something as big as the A380. As a 747 replacement the 777 works just fine, thank you very much and, like a top notch gridiron quarterback, can “make all the throws” (fly every international route) this peppy little carrier needs to succeed.

Despite recent stories to the contrary, United is not again bankrupt but is in severely tight straits regarding fleet replenishment such as would be needed to go toe-to-toe with Qantas, Singapore, Emirates and Company. If United cannot afford or does not need the A380 then that’s fine but their announced upgrades have the overall affect of the emperor’s new clothes. Sadly for United, however, it appears old Mrs. Haversham will ply the friendly skies to Australia and Hong Kong, their two longest nonstop routes, for some years to come, pining for the customers with whom she once was one.

So, ultimately, my issues with the Qantas product are all about physical placement on and within the aircraft and not towards what appears to be magnificent creature comforts in all classes. The seats in each cabin look gorgeous and the food and amenities thoughtfully created and well appointed. None of my issues detract from the physical comfort or culinary standards Qantas has set. It’s clearly and simply a case of coming just within a hair of perfection – I like being able to get to my preferred seat without obstruction and, once settled in, I like to see where I’m going and what the world looks like around me. Qantas, I eagerly look forward to your A380 experience.

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