In my predictions for 2009, I speculated this would be the year that the new Airbus A380 superjumbo becomes a selling point differentiator for airlines. Judging by this billboard advertisment (above) that's currently looming over the concourse at London's Waterloo station, it appears to be happening rather quickly.
What I think is fascinating about this is the direction in which it has the potential to take air travel. From the early years of flight - when air travel was an exotic, romantic experience - air travel has turned into something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.
I once heard the late, great Paul MacCready (designer of the Gossamer Albatross) lament “if only modern automobiles had been refined and developed to be as light and efficient as aeroplanes have, perhaps the automobile industry wouldn't be in such trouble” – but what this in turn means, is that the vehicles we travel on (or in), in the air - are largely indistinguishable from one another. As MacCready alludes, that's because modern aeroplane design walks a fine line in balancing efficiency, carrying capacity and cost - and the long, thin tube sitting on a central wing box seems to have won out as the design pattern of choice... Airlines therefore don't advertise, or differentiate on the types of aircraft they fly - they appeal with cheap fares, better entertainments systems and the allusion to superior service.
Compare this to the auto industry, conversely - where the minor detail differentiation of cars from competitor to competitor is the subject of millions - no makes that billions - of dollars of advertising money, not to mention design and development funds. Thus, I'd speculate that while 99 out of 100 people will be able to tell you what make and model of car they drive, 99 out of 100 people won’t be able to tell you what the last type of plane they flew on was - nor, I'd suggest, would they care.
Yet the Airbus A380 - superjumbo, whalejet, or double-decker plane (whatever you want to call it) - seems to have firmly entered the public conscience - such was the troubled nature of its birth, and the awe-inspiring size of this 'machine', and sense of disbelief that exists, that mankind has managed to engineers such a vast craft, capable of such a graceful ascension from earth to sky.
Judging by last weekend’s article in The Sunday Times, not only are the airlines (Qantas, Singapore and Emirates offer UK-based A380 departures) differentiating themselves from the competition by advertising that they fly the A380 - but the plane's following is allowing them to charge a tidy price premium for travel on it. In an article entitled “The search for the best A380” the paper reports that Emirates - for instance - flies four times a day from London Heathrow to Dubai, and while on its Boeing 777s you can make that trip for as little as £305 in economy, if you want to fly on an A380, the price starts at £530.
Is it worth the difference? Well, probably not - particularly in economy. As the Qantas advert illustrates, the big gains this plane allows the airlines (showers, bar areas, individual first class cabins with double beds) are reserved for Business and First class passengers. The question is, at what point will the A380 become so ubiquitous that they can now longer get away with charging a premium? And with Boeing's groundbreaking 787 Dreamliner not far away now, can new planes like these reverse the miserabilism and hatred currently exhibited by both public and media alike, towards the whole notion of flying? In the UK, at least, our wider priorities seem to suggest that's unlikely, but ultimately, planes like the A380 could be the best hope that exists of creating a new 'golden age' of air travel.
Images: Qantas advertising billboard - Joseph Simpson; Gossamer Albatross - catface3 on flickr; Qantas A380 - Joits on flickr; Emirates A380 shower - Ammar Abd Rabbo on flickr; Singapore first class suite - Singapore Airlines
Posted by Joseph Simpson on 27th Januray 2009