Hot Ticket for the World’s Biggest Passenger Jet

First-class passengers aboard Emirates’ Airbus A380 can sidle up to a full-service bar. Four other airlines offer flights on the biggest passenger plane in the sky.

Before they ever leave New York’s Kennedy Airport for Paris, tourists pose to take pictures in front of it, as though it were the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty. But this is not a monument, just a monumental airplane.

Though it has been a slow-seller with airlines, the $300 million Airbus A380 has been a hit with travelers. Jason Digby and his wife Susanne came to New York a day early from Mississippi just to connect to the double-deck jet that is the largest passenger airplane in the sky. Even after 32 months, enthusiasts still seek out the airplane with the giant forehead, and airlines say it draws stronger bookings and higher prices than other wide-body jets.

Some people just want to say they’ve flown the behemoth, which can carry more than 500 passengers. “It made the flight seem short. I wish it had been longer,” said Mr. Digby after landing in Paris on Air France Flight 7, on his way to a vacation in Crete. He was dazzled by the A380’s unique tail-mounted camera, which gives a birds-eye view of the plane and everything in front of it during takeoff, landing and throughout the flight. Fliers are also amazed at what it doesn’t have — all the engine noise.

“It’s quieter than any other plane I’ve been on,” said Benoit Marchal of Paris. He also picked the A380 from among Air France’s five daily flights in each direction between New York and Paris just to be on the A380. “I’ve heard about the A380 for years and I wanted to try it,” he said.

Part of the novelty is that they are still relatively rare. Indeed, only 30 A380s are in service at five airlines so far, though Airbus has orders for another 234.

Still, amenities on the A380 haven’t quite lived up to their pre-production hype. The company touted grand visions of luxuries on board, pitching the A380 as a flying hotel or cruise ship, with duty free shops on board, restaurant-style dining areas or even gyms, casinos and beauty parlors. But demand for cheap tickets prompted airlines to be more conventional.

So for the most part, they opted for lots and lots of seats, with an occasional stand-up bar for premium passengers. A few exceptions: Singapore Airlines offers first-class suites — private cabins with double beds (the airline has a no-sex policy). Emirates has a shower cabin installed on its A380s for first-class passengers. (You get 25 minutes in the shower cabin with five minutes of water.)

Because of the vast differences in service and cabins, fares aboard the same flight can vary as widely as the 262-foot wingspan of the plane. On Singapore Airlines, for example, an Aug. 14-21 round-trip between London and Singapore on A380 flights was priced Wednesday at $14,505 for a suite, or $1,556 for a coach seat. On Australia’s Qantas Airways, the span was even greater. A coach seat from Los Angeles to Sydney and back on A380 flights for the same dates could be had for as little as $818; first-class seats on the same flights cost $24,538 round-trip.

With the economic downturn, some first-class seats are already losing out on the super-jumbo plane to yet more economy seats.

Qantas, which flies A380s from Sydney and Melbourne to Los Angeles, London and Singapore, has four classes of service: first, business, economy and “premium economy,” which gives travelers almost as much space as they get in domestic, first-class seats on U.S. airlines. But the airline has decided to ax first class from future A380 deliveries and add more premium economy and coach seating, a reflection of customer reluctance to spend lavishly for first-class.

In coach, passengers find the same cramped quarters of most other jets on the super-jumbo. Seating is 10 across on the lower deck; eight abreast on the narrower upper deck. Air France, with 538 total seats, opted for a slightly wider coach seat than other A380 operators, but loses some space in the aisles, which are a skinny 17-inches wide in the lower-deck coach cabin. “Seat pitch” — the amount of space allocated to each row of seats, including leg room — is only 31 to 32 inches in the A380 coach cabins, consistent with some of the tightest coach seating at airlines, and less than you get on Southwest Airlines.

One unique A380 coach advantage: The side walls of the lower deck bow out, instead of in, so shoulder room for people in window seats is spacious.

The tight quarters haven’t deterred customers, who find the quiet cabin, staircases between the decks, camera views of the airplane, seat-back entertainment systems with big screens and more options, and the buzz of the unique airplane to all be reasons to prefer A380 tickets over other planes.

Dominique Patry, vice president of international affairs and alliances at Air France, says the percentage of seats sold on the A380 is five points higher than any other flight on that route.

Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said his airline has seen the percentage of its 450 seats filled on an A380 run about two to three percentage points higher than on its Boeing 747 jumbo jets, even though the fares Qantas charges for A380 flights run 2% to 3% higher as well. In surveys, satisfaction scores on the A380 have been higher than Qantas has seen for any airplane in its history.

“The aircraft has an attraction,” Mr. Joyce said. “People know there are only a few airlines in the world with it.”

Singapore Airlines’ CEO Chew Choon Seng said routes for his A380s — Singapore to Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, Paris, Sydney, Tokyo and Zurich — all have enough traffic to fill the 471-seat plane. “All of them are doing well,” he said.

To many airlines, though, the A380 is too big and too expensive. Cathay Pacific, a Hong Kong-based premium airline, prefers smaller Boeing 777-300ERs with longer range.

“Whenever we studied it, and we studied it quite closely, we always found a more effective solution,” said Cathay CEO Tony Tyler.

Another factor: Because so much cargo space is taken up on the A380 by passenger baggage — there are two decks worth of passengers, but only one deck for cargo — the A380’s cargo capacity isn’t as large as the 777-300ER, Mr. Tyler notes.

Given the high price tag on the plane and the preference among many U.S. travelers for the convenience of frequent flights, airline executives say it’s unlikely any U.S. carrier will fly the A380 anytime soon.

“My perspective is that airplane is a great airplane for certain markets where you can assemble a lot of traffic,” said Gerard Arpey, chief executive of AMR Corp.’s American Airlines. But even in his airline’s biggest international market — New York to London — leisure and corporate customers want frequency, Mr. Arpey said, and the A380 is too big for American.

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