Business, Finance & Economics

A short hop on a big plane


PARIS, France — Instead of smashing a champagne bottle over a new airplane’s nose, the tradition in aviation for christening an aircraft, or so the flight captain told passengers, is to give it a full hosing down at the end of its first outing.

And so it was with Air France's new A380, the first of the world’s largest passenger jets to join the AirFrance KLM fleet. On the approach to gate E57 at Charles de Gaulle airport, fire brigades flanked the super jumbo jet and sprayed a huge arc of water over the aircraft as it taxied along the runway, marking the end of a journey that began with much fanfare in Hamburg, Germany.

For many passengers on the ceremonial flight, the day started in Paris with a lot of buzz in Terminal 2F, where perky employees greeted them and handed out boarding passes and badges to invited guests, journalists and company personnel, who won their spots by participating in a quiz.

In Hamburg, after reading from their prepared remarks extolling how the day had been the culmination of years of investment and forward-thinking, the leaders from the trinity of companies that made the delivery of the aircraft possible — Airbus, Engine Alliance and Air France KLM — joined on stage for ceremonial photographs.

Then, with applause prompted by a stiff request of “let’s rock the house” from an emcee, the curtains parted to reveal the aircraft and a rush of sunlight nearly blinded onlookers.

After a light lunch, it was time for passengers heading back to Paris to board and get a first-hand view of the inside of the plane, to see if the two years of delays were worth the wait.

My daunting task of walking 90 rows back did not come to pass. Among the considerations of the new plane are separate boarding ramps corresponding to the cabin in which a passenger is traveling. Flight attendants in crisp uniforms greeted passengers and ushered them to their seats. Seat 90F was in the upper deck. The flight attendants were eager to extol the virtues of the aircraft, from the mood lighting that can imitate dawn and dusk and every ambient mood in between, to the wider spaces between aisles and cabins.

Among the plane’s features are six bar areas and an arts and culture lounge area with screens featuring works of art thanks to a partnership with the Louvre Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. Seats are equipped with slots for electronic memory sticks where passengers can download materials such as music, city guides to their destinations and games. The first-class cabin includes a changing room with high-end beauty products for men and women. First-class passengers receive pajamas during long haul flights. Plush seats recline into beds. Hand-held devices allow passengers to electronically chat with one another even if they are seated far apart.

As the flight took off, passengers — watching the take-off on in-flight monitors — applauded.

Cameras outside of the aircraft allowed passengers to view from the inside what was happening around the plane during takeoff and landing, and a good look at the undercarriage of a no-doubt doomed cockroach that tried to catch a ride to Paris by hopping on the lens. 

The business party atmosphere of the flight home was vastly different from the sleepy mood of the morning flight. Flight attendants passed around glasses of champagne, and canapes of roast beef and jumbo shrimp, followed by dessert pastries.

Passengers touring and snapping photos joked about being afraid of getting lost. Approaching the changing cabin, one passenger asked rhetorically, “So this is the famous boudoir? A toilette without the toilette.”

Trying out the reclining seats for the first time, business-class passenger Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros, who is the chief of staff of the French Air Force, said, “Comfort is one thing, effectiveness is another.”

Others marveled that there wasn't more noise from the engines.

Earlier in the day, Jim Moravecek, president of the U.S.-based Engine Alliance, which supplied the engines for the A380, said he was pleased with the order for the 48 engines plus five spares for the 12 planes Air France KLM eventually hopes to have. He said the order, placed in 2001, represented a “substantial amount of money” for the company, which has assembly centers in Durham, N.C. and Middletown, Conn. “The world has changed a lot in nine years.”

The simple and yet sobering statement spoke profound truths. For although it went unsaid most of the day, the economic crisis and the slump in the aviation industry loomed large over the festive proceedings.

With its “if you build it, they will come” chutzpah, Air France KLM is gambling that it can fill enough of the aircraft’s 548 seats to make its risky venture worthwhile. But at the end of the day, for all of its new features and advances, the A380 remains an aircraft that needs to carry paying customers from point A to point B.

No amount of mood lighting is going to change that. 

The plane is scheduled to begin commercial service with a flight to New York Nov. 20.