A380 makes first paying flight

Superjumbo takes 455 from Singapore to Sydney - quietly

October 26, 2007|By Julie Johnsson

SYDNEY, Australia -- They started lining up at 4:15 a.m. at deserted Singapore Changi Airport, 45 minutes before the ticket counters opened and four hours before the hulking jet would glide into the morning sky.

They came from all around the world, all walks of life, drawn by the chance to be the first paying passengers to fly on the first all-new jumbo jet to be developed in decades - and maybe the last.

They splurged, from Julian Hayward, who ponied up $100,380 to win the first suite auctioned on the flight, to Artemis Shamari, who paid nearly $4,000 to claim a seat made available by a late cancellation.

They were on the first flight of the Airbus A380, enjoying the honor usually only accorded dignitaries and top customers, because of a global auction that raised nearly $1.3 million for charity, while bestowing global publicity for Singapore Airlines.

"I'm glad I've come," said Shamari, who flew from Manchester, England, to fly on SQ 380 to Sydney. "I wouldn't been able to live with myself if I'd passed this up."

The first A380 to enter commercial service took off at 8:16 a.m. yesterday to the applause of those on board, and the relief of Singapore Airlines officials who'd been forced to postpone this date by about 17 months while manufacturer Airbus SAS sorted out production problems with the double-decker superjumbo.

"It's a happy and proud occasion," said Chew Choon Seng, the dapper and affable chief executive of Singapore Airlines Ltd., who spent much of the flight strolling the giant jet's aisles. "It gives our whole organization and our country an uplift."

The giant plane had been derided as a white elephant for being oversized in an era of smaller, long-range jets. But it drew mostly raves from the aviation fanatics who had traveled from 35 nations to be part of this event.

Conversations halted as it became airborne, the 455 passengers onboard pausing to see if the cabin was quiet as Airbus had claimed. It was. People sitting across an aisle could converse easily without having to yell over the roar of the jet's engines.

"Very nice," said David Chew, a businessman from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, traveling with his wife.

While the aircraft was still ascending at a steep angle, its pilots switched off the seat belt signs and the party started. The aisles quickly clogged with film crews and passengers, who wandered around the craft, checking out seats wide enough to seat two in business class or to share stories.

The euphoria lasted throughout the 7 1/2 -hour flight.

"This has been more of a party than a plane ride," said Lee Simonetta, a research engineer from Jacksonville, Fla.

He fell in love with aviation flying on Pan American World Airways as a child, flights that were social events where people wore their finest. But his wife balked, Simonetta said, when he suggested the A380 voyage as an anniversary present. "She couldn't see flying half way around the world just to take another flight," he said.

Garry Burrows had crafted T-shirts commemorating the flight at his design firm in Thailand, using bootlegged corporate logos and designs from Singapore Airlines and Airbus. They suddenly were must-have items.

Thomas Marks Lee, a Californian, showed off a framed certificate from 1970 commemorating the commercial launch of the Boeing 747 from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.

"In that time, it was an enormous event," Lee recalled. "It was not as splashy as this flight today, though."

Nor did the launch of the Boeing 747, the first jumbo jet, go as smoothly. The initial flight was called off as pilots spotted flames coming out of an engine. Pan Am shipped the passengers off to a restaurant while it brought in a backup jet, Lee said.

Singapore Airlines hopes yesterday's launch will mimic the better aspects of Pan Am's global expansion on the wings of the earlier jumbo jet. Since Singapore Airlines is set to take delivery of the first four A380 superjumbos, it hopes to establish a reputation for luxury that none of its competitors can match.

"It gives us a head start," said Chew, head of the airline.

The strategy appears to be working. More than 80 percent of seats are already sold on Singapore Airline's A380 flights scheduled for the next several months.

That's a precious advantage over rivals such as Qantas Airways Ltd. and Emirates Airline, which are to roll out their own luxuriously equipped A380s over the next year.

While Singapore Airlines plans to initially use the planes on the lucrative "kangaroo route" linking Australia with Singapore and Europe, it also eventually plans to bring the A380 to North America, on service from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

Julie Johnsson writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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