By Dom Serafini
And on the fifth day it failed.
What was meant to be a memorable seven-hour flight to Munich via Paris became a 14-hour ordeal on the new Air France A380. My journey to the German Screenings, point-to-point, became a 19-hour missed connection nightmare.
Billed as one of the world’s wonders, the A380 began its Paris-to-New York (and back) service five days prior to my trip, on November 23. Able to hold 538 passengers, it is the world’s largest plane. For the time being, Air France has just one in operation, departing from JFK airport’s Terminal One.
To be among the first on board such a plane was such an exciting prospect that I called Air France’s press office seeking a tour of the aircraft for this week’s Water Cooler report. Cedric Leurquin from the airline’s Paris office directed us to Karen Gillo, who is based in the New York press office. Gillo essentially ignored our request. Leurquin then suggested we check out the A380 press kit available online.
It’s understandable that when a company has what it perceives to be a technological wonder, its press people may become arrogant if not uncharacteristically incompetent. And so, what could have been a mere technical failure has also become a public relations disaster.
At JFK’s Terminal One, the A380’s flight AF007 can only be accommodated at Gate Five, where two jetways have been specially constructed – one apiece for the lower and upper decks of the aircraft.
Boarding began 45 minutes before departure time. Considering the plane was 67 percent booked, the procedure went smoothly. Our concern, however, was not boarding time but rather deplaning, since our original connecting flight to Munich left Paris less than one hour after our scheduled arrival. Getting from arrival terminal 2E to departing terminal 2D at Charles De Gaulle (CDG) Airport is a time-consuming task on its own, even more so considering the time necessary to get more than 360 people off of the A380.
Deplaning turned out to be the least of our problems. After just 45 minutes of smooth flying, the captain announced that the plane must return to JFK due to a malfunction of one of the three navigation instruments on board. At that time, the flight attendants had begun serving beverages, a service that was immediately halted. Passengers were left without food or alcoholic drinks for the remainder of the time on board. Needless to say, I was bound to miss my connection in Paris.
Considering the ordeal, onboard personnel did a good job keeping passengers calm (only three people decided to disembark). The crew was well-mannered and aware of the historical importance of being on this particular aircraft, which may be compared to the first 747 flight or even the Concord. They had begun training for the experience in September.
But what about the plane itself, this wonder of modern technology? Well, the seats in economy class (which make up 83 percent of the plane) are just as narrow as those on Delta, which is to say, quite uncomfortable. Perhaps it would have been better for the passengers’ comfort if the carrier had eliminated one row (10 seats) to allow for more spacious seating.
Incredibly, the A380 doesn’t offer Wi-Fi service, which is now available on significantly older planes. The on-demand TV and movie selection was satisfactory, but the TV news programs are not live like on many other flights. Sadly, we cannot comment on the food or alcoholic drinks’ quality, since there were none to be savored.
Once at its cruising altitude, the A380’s speed reached 1,070 km/h, which is slightly faster than most other intercontinental planes, but it’s possible that tail wind helped to achieve that speed (the in-flight monitor did not indicate the tail wind’s force).
At 73 meters long, the A380 is about the same length as the Boeing 777 and three meters longer than a 747 (the latter of which can hold 477 passengers). However, the A380, manufactured by Europe’s Airbus, is much wider and higher and boasts a greater wingspan than the aforementioned planes.
While physically speaking the A380 is quite the marvel, at this stage and in our view, it is not advisable for those travelers with tight connections and tight arrival schedules.