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 The Brancatelli File

joe PLANE PORN

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 22, 2007 -- There are weighty affairs to discuss today: The latest meltdown at US Airways that stranded thousands of flyers. The tentative approval of Virgin America's application to fly. The "open skies" agreement that will change the nature of U.S.-Europe travel. Even Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has apparently confessed to everything from the 9/11 attacks to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.

But weighty affairs will just have to wait because we have plane porn: Monday's passenger-laden "proving" flight of the gargantuan Airbus A380.

I went on the flight from Frankfurt to New York/Kennedy in search of answers to practical business-travel questions: What's a plane that can carry as many as 850 passengers "feel" like? How problematic is the on-the-ground environment--check-in, luggage handling and boarding--going to be? What's the in-flight experience? How are airlines going to configure the behemoth? Will US-based passengers ever actually get to fly the plane?

I didn't get answers to most of those questions and, normally, I would have filed my notes away, thanked the ever-gracious folks at Lufthansa for saving me a seat and devoted this week's column to the more pressing matters at hand on the road.

But that's where we come to the plane porn: People, even folks who I thought would know better or could care less, are titillated and excited by this leviathan. It makes them hot.

On Sunday morning, the A380's arrival in Frankfurt from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, drew thousands of locals who paid €3 a head to stand on a wind-swept airport viewing deck and see the plane taxi. Every Lufthansa employee I encountered during my 24 hours in Frankfurt was curious about the plane and envious of my seat on it. Even the blas? Frankfurt airport merchants I interviewed on Sunday evening were jazzed about the A380.

When the plane departed on Monday morning, workers servicing other planes stopped to watch us taxi onto the runway. As we were landing at Kennedy, I saw crowds lining the surrounding roadways. As we taxied to our gate, ground crews stopped to watch. Almost simultaneously, an empty A380 was making a ceremonial landing at Los Angeles Airport and a few hundred folks showed up to gawk.

All day Tuesday, I fielded calls from airline executives who wanted the skinny about the chubby A380. And after some of you saw me opining about the flight on television, you sent E-mails asking about the experience.

Okay, I get it. Even if I have very little practical data to report, you want to know. Plane porn is seductive that way. But rather than repeat what has been so well documented since Monday, let me direct you to the dispatches filed by my eminently qualified colleagues.

If only video will do--and porn with pictures is the best--surf here for Peter Greenberg's excellent report for NBC's Today Show. He sits in the seats in all three classes and makes his entrance coming down the plane's grand staircase. And Lisa Stark filed an insightful piece for the ABC World News With Charles Gibson. She takes a tape measure to the coach chair and walks up the grand staircase.

On the print side, Peter Pae's story in The Los Angeles Times has lots of commentary from travelers on the flight. Joe Sharkey's business-travel column in The New York Times adds details about the peculiar competition between the New York and Los Angeles flights. And Laura Bly's just-the-facts approach for Tuesday's USA Today will be supplemented with a larger story in tomorrow's paper.

But prurient details and titillating pictures aside, we still know almost nothing about how the Airbus A380 will affect our lives as business travelers.

Take the in-flight environment, for example. The configuration of the Frankfurt-New York flight--business class upstairs, first class downstairs and coach cabins configured 2x4x2 or 3x4x3 on both decks--was Airbus generic. No airline, not even Lufthansa, which staffed the flight, will fly its A380s that way or use the seats we experienced. Yes, this flight had sofa-like lounge seating flanking the staircase on the upper deck and a bar on the lower deck, but that, too, was Airbus generic. None of the baker's dozen of carriers that have ordered the planes must offer a bar or lounges or any of the other perks (showers, shops, gyms) that Airbus says the A380 can accommodate.

In fact, none of the four carriers that will fly almost two-thirds of the A380s currently on the order books--Emirates, Qantas, Singapore and Lufthansa--will discuss their proprietary configurations. They do, however, go to great lengths to say that their versions will have fewer than 500 seats. "If we get nothing else out of this flight, we hope that you tell readers that we won't have an 850-seat plane," one Lufthansa executive told me on Monday.

As for on-the-ground stuff--boarding, luggage handling, customs and immigration matters--Monday's flight was, frankly, rigged for maximum efficiency. Nothing we encountered is likely to be seen by the average traveler using an Airbus A380 in the future.

One example: Lufthansa solicited employee volunteers to spend Sunday at Frankfurt airport running boarding drills. Each one gamely boarded and disembarked the plane four times. But as I watched them go through their paces, I couldn't help but notice who wasn't in the boarding throng: antsy moms with fidgety kids; elderly people; cranky frequent flyers who were denied an upgrade; exhausted travelers who'd just arrived on a long-haul connecting flight; or customers who've endured a long delay. (There were at least five volunteers in wheelchairs.) The volunteers were told to come with a single, preferably empty, carry-on bag. Each time they went through the drill, Lufthansa thoughtfully restocked the departure area with fresh beverages and tasty snacks. And as many as five people simultaneously processed boarding passes and made mock gate announcements during the drills.

On our flight on Monday morning, we were all told to bring just one carry-on bag and one piece of checked luggage. And we were all instructed to be at the gate two hours before our scheduled departure time. No wonder we were boarded, seated and buttoned up for departure in a startling 40 minutes.

When we landed at Kennedy on Monday, we found a deserted Customs and Immigration area in Terminal 1. Part of the reason for that was our landing time: around noon, when few other international flights are scheduled to arrive. And "we cleared the floor for you," said the agent who processed my entry form and passport. Beyond the barrier, our checked bags were already tumbling onto the carousel and were being unloaded by at least three baggage handlers.

Of course, there's nothing nefarious in all of this. After all, this was an unofficial "proving" flight, not a ready-for-prime-time operation. And Lufthansa was at pains to remind folks that even the in-flight meal service was a matter for testing. All three classes received the same trayed lunch service and a pre-arrival snack. The goal was not to make culinary history, just to prove that everyone aboard could get service.

Yet the air of unreality on Monday served to underscore the fact that the A380 project is a troubled one. Originally conceived more than a decade ago, the plane remains overweight and over budget and it has been repeatedly delayed by production snafus. At $300 million a pop, the market for the plane has shrunk drastically from Airbus' initial estimates of 1,400 worldwide. Only 156 have been ordered, none by U.S. carriers. By contrast, Boeing has already sold more than 450 of the 210-to-330-seat Dreamliner in less than four years.

The first delivery of a passenger-ready A380 won't be until the fall. It'll go to Singapore Airlines, which expects the first commercial flight before the end of the year. Lufthansa, which cheerily endured all us nosy scribes, won't receive its first A380 until 2009.

Which leads to the obvious question: When will you be able to fly an Airbus A380, brave the madding crowd of 450 or 500 other passengers and draw your own conclusions?

Most of the 13 international carriers that have ordered the A380 fly to the United States. But when I checked with them this week, none would publicly confirm that the A380 would operate on a U.S. route. Logic dictates that several will do so, but logic doesn't always rule in the airline business.

So now that we've indulged this week's round of plane porn, it's back to the ugly reality of life on the road. Any of you travelers stranded by US Airways over the weekend gotten your bags back yet?

Copyright ? 1993-2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.