Somewhere over Nova Scotia, June 6th, 2011 – I write this as I ride on Lufthansa’s AB380 en route San Francisco – Frankfurt. I had to ride on this plane, ever since I saw it swing by, towering over us, while on an earlier trip to Orlando precisely 3 weeks ago. Ok, I’ll just admit it – I am just a child when it comes to these sorts of “engineering marvels!” I needed the “fix.” I’ve been in marketing for too long!
I so vividly remember to this day, the sheer excitement of flying Air India’s “Emperor Vikramaditya” (?) – a royal member of AI’s Jumbo jet fleet – back on December 2nd, 1980. (My brother, Srinivas, celebrated the longest birthday of his life.) The aircraft was gigantic, the lines to board were long, the plane was clearly “modern,” flying was a true treat, and Boeing ruled the commercial airwaves. We flew from Bombay to London’s Heathrow and then on to NYC’s John F Kennedy airport. We were served by generally gracious air hostesses (an “in” job in those days) using proper crockery, provided serious silverware, and, believe it or not, the food was good! (I can still describe the omelet I ate on that flight, some three decades later. In stark contrast, I can’t, for the life of me, recall what was served to me just 4 hours ago.)
So, has anything changed??
With the AB380 replacing the mighty Jumbo jet, has the “old order changeth, yielding place to new?”
Let’s start with some observations:
- If you had blindfolded me and let me loose in the cabin, I would not have known I was on such a large aircraft – the 3-4-3 seat configuration is the norm in wide body jets…
- The upper deck is 100% reserved for business and first class passengers
- How deceptively small the aircraft looks – its only when you compare it to the other aircraft in the area do you realize how big it is. (See picture with a 747 landing near us)
- How quickly (i.e., after a short run up on the runway) and effortlessly the plane took off
- How incredibly quiet the cabin is, once in the air
- The fact that there are only 8 First Class Seats (Add 98 Business Class seats and some 440 (44 rows of ~10 each) in Cattle Class and you get something like 556 passengers on board)
Changes for the better
- Technology is to be seen everywhere – from the white light LED’s through the personalized entertainment systems in every seat and the four gigantic engines to the winglets at the tips of the long, slender and flexible wings (that I estimate rose a good 10 feet between when the aircraft was on the ground and when we are in the air!)
- All 550+ people on the flight boarded painlessly in about 30 mins! (They had 3 jet ways – one for the upper deck, one for the front half of the lower deck and one for the rear half of the lower deck.)
- Storage space in the cabin seemed plentyful; despite a packed flight (Do we thank Bin Laden for this change?)
Changes for the worse
- The food is utterly mediocre. I have the sense of being on my own, rather than being pampered by the Royal Maharaja and his dedicated courtiers as we were back in 1980.
- Seating is certainly more cramped
Changes invisible to the untrained eye
- I am sure that the aircraft is fundamentally greener and burns a whole lot less fuel – both on an absolute scale and on a per capita basis. The hundreds of miles of wires have been dramatically reduced in length, all of the plastic has eliminated weight, and composite materials are everywhere in the structure (a fact that would have thoroughly gladdened my father’s heart, given the many years he spent studying the fatigue properties of composites and evangelizing the use in products ranging from aircraft to cooling tower and windmill blades)
My conclusion? Not a whole lot has (visibly) changed! While utterly disappointed, I guess that this isn’t that different than comparing the Pontiac station wagon my uncle picked us up in at JFK to even a Buick I might buy today… it is after all a body and an engine on four wheels steered by yet another wheel. Yes, so we have a stiffer unibody, a lot of electronics optimizing the engine and the power train, but, in the end, as Mr. Ed would have put it, “a car is a car is a car.” I wasn’t going from a bullock cart to a jet plane. Sadly, it’s all about incremental innovation, once in the category.
The gizmo I enjoyed the most? The multiple on-board cameras that let me(and, for that matter, anyone else on the plane who cared about it) look forward from the top of the tail, the bottom of the belly, and (I think) the nose of the aircraft throughout the flight.
The highlight of the flight? A personal tour of the cockpit—large enough to house 3 pilots, bunk beds and all—once we touched down in Frankfurt!
Safe and happy flying!