On world's biggest airliner, the little things count

The days of cursing the passenger in front of you could be over. On the world’s biggest airliner, the Airbus A380, it is the little things that will make travel more comfortable for ordinary flyers, said Tom Ballantyne, senior correspondent for the industry publication Orient Aviation.

“It will definitely mean a more comfortable experience for economy passengers,” Ballantyne said ahead of the superjumbo’s first commercial flight between Singapore and Sydney on Thursday.

On the A380, when the economy class passenger in front reclines his seat while you are trying to eat, the table will no longer end up jammed into your stomach.

Singapore Airlines (SIA), the first to fly the A380, has made much of the 12 super-premium “Suites” compartments which feature a full-length bed behind sliding doors.

But Ballantyne said the 399 economy passengers will also notice a difference.

He said SIA along with Qantas and Emirates—which will follow with A380 service beginning next year—is giving economy passengers more legroom and space to move around.

“The new type of seats they’re putting in are ergonomically designed,” Ballantyne said.

Economy seats on the SIA aircraft also include a reading light under the seatback video screen, not overhead where old-style lights tended to shine on your sleeping neighbour while you tried to read.

There are also storage spaces for spectacles, a coat hook and an in-seat power supply.

For the 60 passengers in the business-class section, SIA says, the A380’s size allows it to offer the world’s widest business-class seat.

But some analysts say all those trimmings will not mean much for those who cannot afford the best seats.

“I don’t think there’s much change in economy,” said Shukor Yusof, an aviation analyst at Standard and Poor’s equity research.

“At the end of the day, the ordinary passenger wants to get from point A to point B in as quick a time as possible,” he said.

Adam Kirkpatrick, an analyst with the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation consultancy, said the average passenger would notice little change compared with a Boeing 747 jumbo, previously the biggest passenger plane in the sky.

“There will be a lot more people, with a lot more crew on board,” Kirkpatrick said.

The A380 can carry 853 passengers in an all-economy configuration or about 550 in three classes, but SIA has opted for 471.

Ballantyne said other major carriers buying the A380 plan a roughly similar number of seats, and that Airbus production is currently geared for such configurations.

But in the future, another carrier might have different ideas, he said.

“A low-cost carrier could buy this aircraft and put 853 seats,” Ballantyne said.

Kirkpatrick said the increased number of passengers on A380s may mean more delays until modern airports become fully equipped to deal with them.

“It’s definitely going to be a challenge for the ground-handling operators and the airports at both ends of the trip to be able to handle this aircraft,” he said.

“Twice as many bags, twice as many passengers coming in all at once.”

More than one-third of the 180 firm orders and commitments to buy the superjumbo have come from Dubai-based Emirates, which ordered 55 and said last month it would ultimately like to double that order.

Yusof sees the A380 getting at most 20% of the market.

He says there is no guarantee that smaller carriers like Thai Airways or Malaysia Airlines, which have also ordered the superjumbo, will be able to replicate the likely success which SIA, Qantas and Emirates will have with it.

“That’s where it’s going to get interesting,” Ballantyne said. “They’re all going to be flying the aircraft between Australia, South-east Asia and London.”

As soon as Emirates begins flying the A380, later joined by other carriers, price competition will set in, he said.

That could mean not only more legroom—but lower fares, too.

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