Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Super Jumbo Smashing Great

The Airbus A380. Actually, 'the' Airbus A380. This is perhaps the future of air-travel. But at the moment, there's only one in service in the world.

I'm in Delhi. The last time I updated the website from India was exactly six months ago, in very different circumstances. I'm now here with work! I'm on a 12 day trip to visit some organisations that Opportunity International has been working with, or is looking to work with in the future.

I'll shortly have plenty to say about the trip itself I'm sure. It's only the end of day one, but already it's been a great experience. But it is only the end of day one. So I'll say nothing more about India yet.

Instead, I'll start from last week. Pre-departure prep was eventful in itself. Last week I worked like a dog and was in the office at 7am more than once.

Having never felt more motivated at work, it wasn’t hard to do.

I needed to fuse the wires a bit after that week and went out for a (fairly) big one on the Friday night with Ed. Good night. Got up the next morning for my Saturday morning ocean swim. I enjoyed this as much as ever, really pushing myself under grey skies. I was amazed by the visibility in the water, out beyond the waves. It was incredible, the light reaching right down to the sandy bottom far below. Far clearer than I’ve seen before at Bondi.

In contrast, the weather was poor and the by the end of the session the grey skies had turned dark and soon raindrops were pebbling the waves. It didn’t feel cold to me, but I guess it was. In any event, the next morning I woke up completely bunged, with a sore throat, and generally feeling rubbish. More than anything, I couldn’t believe the timing.

Due to fly to India the next day.

Visiting a centre for the most destitute, disease-prone people in India the day after that.

I snuffled my way through Sunday, doing a few hours work, meeting up with a couple of friends and eventually washing, ironing and packing at the very last minute, finally getting to bed just before midnight with a horrible sicky feeling that the 6am start would not be a pleasant one.

But then I caught a break.

I woke the next morning having – as usual – allowed myself 12 minutes between getting out of bed and leaving the house. When I have to get up early, I won’t get up any earlier than absolutely necessary. If you can shave, shower (do the other sh…), apply deodorant and aftershave, dress, check keys (wallet and ipod), leave the house and lock up in 12 minutes – and you can, if you want to, you can – why would you get up any earlier?

I think I was at the getting dressed stage before I realised I felt fine. Not just fine but great. Cold gone. You could say someone was looking out for me. It certainly seemed miraculous in my vocabulary.

My day improved to the power of about six when I got a more than pleasant surprise at the airport. After a lengthy weight for check in, and a rather uncomfortable delay in the departure lounge, my flight was at last called, slightly after the scheduled departure time. As I made my way to the tunnel to board the aircraft, I glanced at the front of the plane and it looked, well… …funny. A bit different. And boy was it.

For 40 years, the Boeing ‘Jumbo’ 747 has been one of a select number of celebrated icons that have come to symbolise technological progress in the modern age. It is a colossus of popular culture, one of just a few ‘objets’ that have grown to embody the ingenuity of man and the simultaneously shrinking and growing world that we live in at the end of the 20th Century and start of the 21st.

But as of the end of January 2008, there was one (and still only one) commercial aircraft in the world that could top the 747. There can’t be anyone with even a passing interest in planes, flying, or even just travel generally, who doesn’t know all about the Airbus A380 Superjumbo. At last, after four empty decades, we have something that can show some progress in our mastery of the skies (Concorde aside… which I love, but which in all honesty had a rather limited impact in the history of passenger flight).

You can see how these two stories are converging. But before that, I just have to point out again that there really is only one aircraft that tops the 747 right now. Not just one model, but one plane. Due to well-publicised problems in production, Airbus were only able to deliver the first A380 to launch-customer, Singapore Airlines, in October 2007. And they have yet to deliver another… to anyone. The plane only flies one route, and even that route it shares with a number of other aircraft.

So I was exceptionally lucky to be one of the first few hundred-thousand people to fly the A380. And if you think that sounds less than impressive, bear in mind that there have been more than a billion passengers have flown in a 747.

Anyway, enough fluff and bluster, what was it actually like?

Singapore Airlines configuration allows for just 471 seats from a maximum possible of 800. So there was plenty of room. In this first aircraft, some seats are omitted, almost at random it seems, which adds to the sense of spaciousness. Plus, for a double-decker aircraft, the headroom was phenomenal. I’m looking up and thinking, how can the ceiling be so high, when there’s another couple of hundred seats above my head? And then there are the wings. They are colossal. Anyone with a window seat anywhere from row 33 way back to row 49 is sitting at the wing.

But though some things seemed bizarrely big, a lot of other areas looked pretty similar to any other wide-bodied aircraft. The toilets, for example, are just as pokey as ever, and bizarrely – given that the flight was only a third full – there didn’t seem to be enough of them.

And yes, you did hear right. The plane was a third-full at best. I think it’s about eight years since I was last on a long-haul flight that was so empty. Maybe it was the day of the week, or the time of year, but it seemed frankly bizarre that the plane designed to increase global air-passenger capacity should start its life with so many empty seats.

But for me, that didn’t detract from the experience, but rather did much to enhance it as I was able to switch seats and move about the plane freely.

Not that you would feel the need, as the seats were extra comfy. Like a good recliner chair (and unlike any other economy class seat I’ve experienced), the base part tilts as you recline the seat back. And then – as can be seen in the next picture – there’s the entertainment system. The best feature of the new system – narrowly beating the USB port for charging your ipod, and keyboard for creating word/excel docs – is the huge, high-resolution widescreen display. I’d swear my old laptop had a screen about that size, and I used to voluntarily watch movies on that.

Talking of which, I caught the 2007 Australian film “Noise” on the flight to Singapore. What an exceptional piece of cinema. This is one of the most beautifully filmed (and soundtracked) films I’ve seen in years. I can’t wait to see what the director, Matthew Saville, does next – you will hear of him again. It’s great that the Australian arts/film scene is capable of something so wonderful, when television in Australia is so appalling.

On the later flight from Singapore to New Delhi I watched Ratatouille. One of the best pieces of cinema I’ve seen in years. In fact, I’m going to come right out and say it. No messing. Without a word of a lie, it was even better than Toy Story 2. Seriously though, I can’t recommend Ratatouille enough. The story and script are as good as you could ever hope for and beautifully put together with drawing and animation that are probably better than any other animated film to date.

Anyway, back to the A380. With the seatbelt signs on and the safety demonstration underway (it was tempting to pinch one of the safety cards as a souvenir, but I resisted), I peered out over the huge wings and could just discern we had started taxiing toward the runway. Take-off itself was the quietest by far that I’ve ever experienced. The engines are super-quiet and you begin to worry that there has been some kind of thrust failure before the plane gently and undramatically lifts into the sky. A little disconcerting the first time to be honest, but definitely something you could sleep through in future.

After take-off we were quickly served a meal, a Sinaporean dish that was easily the best in-flight meal I’ve had, and close to a proper restaurant meal. One less visible, but well appreciated feature of the plane was the air-conditioning. Usually on long-haul flights you get off the plane feeling like you’ve been lightly poached, like an overly-healthy breakfast egg-option. Not here. If I was breathing another two hundred peoples’ germs, it certainly didn’t feel like it.

You can probably guess by now that I’m quite excited about the Airbus A380. And not because I’m a tech-geek, I’m truly not, honest. I’m just very excited about the cutting edge, about achievements that push beyond everything that’s ever been done before. That’s why I’m so excitable about space exploration (and so bored and exasperated by the International Space Station) and anything else of that ilk. The world’s fastest car. Or the world’s tallest building (also frequently mentioned on this website).

But while I get a buzz from hearing about these things, there is a limit. If I were given the choice of spending money on constructing a kilometre-tall building (plans for which were recently announced in Kuwait) or spending money on poverty relief, I’d say let’s all live in bungalows.

At least that gets me back to the subject of poverty. Which is what I should be talking about here anyway. Cue the next update.
The A380, after we touched down at Singapore airport. The ‘nose-on’ shot above captures the unusual shape of the aircraft. It’s ovular, or egg-like. Which explains all that head-room. So I guess the tagline could be: “The A380, fry without getting poached.” (sorry, sorry)