Global Economics

Airbus A380: In Business at Last


Designer linens and silverware, private suites if you're willing to pay, legroom complaints from the peanut gallery—is the Singapore debut a success?

It has private suites furnished with Salvatore Ferragamo toiletries and Givenchy linens and tableware. Even in economy class, there are USB ports at every seat and a choice of 100 movies to watch. Is the Airbus A380, as its manufacturer insists, "a whole new way of flying"? Some Singapore Airlines (SIAL.L) passengers are about to find out.

Nearly two years behind schedule, the A380 finally will enter commercial service this month, flying between Singapore and Sydney. The mega-jet, which carries a list price of $320 million but typically sells for less than that, has drawn crowds around the world in recent months, during test flights and visits to air shows. But its interior design was kept top secret until Oct. 15, when Singapore Airlines threw open the doors for visitors after formally taking delivery of the plane from Airbus in Toulouse, France.

Singapore is known for pampering travelers, and there's plenty of luxury on board this jet. The most distinctive feature: a first-class cabin comprising 12 suites concealed behind folding doors. Inside, the suites have either single or double beds—with Givenchy cushions and duvets—and a separate seat and table. "Customers can look forward to a flight with an unprecedented level of personal space, in their very own private cabin in the sky," says Yap Kim Wah, Singapore Airlines' senior vice-president for product and services.

Flight Delays

For Singapore, the debut of the A380 can't come a moment too soon. The ambitious plane had already slipped behind schedule when Airbus revealed in June, 2006, that problems with the complex wiring systems would delay the first delivery until the end of that year. (The problems were later revealed to be due to incompatible software used in different Airbus facilities.) Even that promise proved elusive: The first commercial flight is finally at hand 10 months into 2007.

The delay was a blow for Singapore Airlines, which had already built lucrative A380 flights into its business plan. But the pain was far worse for Airbus, which watched more than $6 billion in expected operating profits between 2007 and 2010 disappear from its books—not to mention the penalties it had to pay to the likes of Singapore and other early customers burned by the delays.

From First Class to Economy

Now, the focus is on the present—and the perks the superjumbo offers. Meals in first class will come from a menu designed by well-known chefs including Gordon Ramsay of Britain and Georges Blance of France. And they'll be served on Givenchy porcelain and silverware, with wine in crystal glasses. None of this comes cheap. On the airline's Web site, first-class Singapore-to-Sidney tickets are selling for $7,400 round-trip, compared with $5,150 on Singapore's older Boeing (BA) 747s that will continue flying the route.

But what about the other 459 passengers—the 391 economy and 60 business-class customers who will pay from $1,260 to $3,800 for a seat? Singapore's A380 business class has some features that aren't available on all airlines, including seats that fold into flat beds and AC power at every seat. And there's a snack bar where business-class passengers can stretch their legs and get between-meal refreshments.

But in economy class, passengers may not have much to celebrate. There's no relief on legroom, which consistently ranks as the top complaint of airline passengers, says Peter Vink, an industrial design expert at Delft University in the Netherlands who specializes in aircraft interiors.

User-Friendly Entertainment

The "pitch" or space between rows, on Singapore's A380 is 32 inches. That's the same as on many Boeing 747s, and an inch less than on some Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s and A340s, according to comparison charts on the SeatGuru Web site. "Real innovations in seating have still not happened," Vink says.

Other, subtler differences could make flying on the A380 more pleasant than on older planes, though. The A380's engines are noticeably quieter. The cabin pressure will be higher, the air less dry, and the cabin lighting will automatically brighten and dim to mimic changing light outdoors—all of which should make travel less fatiguing. Boeing is promising similar interior improvements on its 787 Dreamliner.

Also, Vink says his research team tested the A380's in-flight entertainment system and found it more user-friendly than other models. Clunky entertainment systems are among passengers' biggest complaints, he says.

A whole new way to fly? Maybe so—if you're one of the lucky few in those suites.

Check out the BusinessWeek.com slide show for a first look inside the A380, as configured for Singapore Airlines.

Matlack is BusinessWeek's Paris bureau chief .

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