Friday, January 21, 2011

The Big Bird Returns to the Sky, Gradually

The largest commercial passenger jet ever built - Airbus's A380 superjumbo - was widely grounded late last year, when problems with engines built by Rolls Royce forced first Qantas, then Singapore Airliness and others, to curtain or even stop flying the big bird. The engines have been tweaked, the problems seem to have been worked out and airlines are gradually returning the A380 to service, as well as announcing new routes for the humongous double-decker plane.

This good for Airbus, of course, as several hundred of the aircraft are on order, led by petrodollar-rich Middle Eastern airlines. It's good for congested airports in that more of these planes once put into service could help ease congestion by moving people with fewer flights. It's good for the airlines, as they can fully utilize growing fleets. And it should be good for travelers; flying in the A380 is a memorable and usually positive experience.

Qantas is returning its superjumbos to service, having resumed flights between Sydney and Los Angeles International as of Jan. 16.

Singapore Airways recently announced it will deploy the big plane between LAX and Tokyo, with continuing service to Singapore, as of March 27.

Korean Air plans to launch service from New York's John F. Kennedy International to Seoul/Inchon International on Aug. 2, the first use of an A380 between New York and Asia. On Oct.1, Korean will ramp up some more, using the A380 between LAX and South Korea.

As it happens, I was on the first-ever scheduled commercial flight of an Airbus A380. That was Singapore Airlines's aptly numbered flight 380, from Singapore to Sydney on Oct. 25, 2007. I remember it as one big party, some eight hours long, with people popping in and out of their seats, drinking bubbly and snapping pictures of each other. The aircraft was memorably and impressively spacious and extraordinarily quiet for a plane its size.

Last month, I had lunch with James Boyd, a vice president communications in the Americas for Singapore Air, who told me that as of then ''11 Airbus A380s are back in the air. It's a well-received and reliable aircraft. We've carried 3 million passengers on our A380s and flown hundreds of thousands of miles. It's a well-performing aircraft, and 40 percent more quiet." Quieter than other jumbo jets, that is.

Speaking of SQ, Boyd said that his airline at the end of March will commence thrice-weekly service between Singapore and Barcelona. SQ also eyes three-times weekly service to Sao Paolo, pending approval from the government of Brazil. "It's an open space in our network,'' he said.
SQ plans to use Boeing 777ERs configured into three classes for its South America service.

In the meantime, it's evidently wheels-up for the A380 superjumbo, following the necessary safety fixes. It's good to have the big bird back in the sky.

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