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Inside the world's most luxurious plane

By Wendy Tanaka, Forbes
October 31, 2008 09:22 IST
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With the global economy in a tailspin, few travelers may be eying that luxurious first-class seat.

That's not stopping Qantas. The Australian carrier started service of its highly anticipated A380 luxury aircraft this week. The inaugural flight departed Melbourne, Australia, and landed in Los Angeles on Monday.

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The aircraft is the ultimate in luxury travel. The double-decker airliner has a first-class section with 14 private suites. Each suite includes a large swivel chair that converts into a bed; a dining table; an extra guest seat; a 17-inch LCD screen loaded with movies, TV shows, music and games; an eight-course tasting menu from Australian chef Neil Perry; Payot skincare products for men and women; and Akira Isogawa pajamas, slippers and socks.

The tab: About $25,000.

At a press conference shortly after the flight, the massive A380 was said to revolutionize air travel the same way the 747 did in the 1960s and 1970s.

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"The biggest air carrier in the world is green, spacious and quiet," said Qantas Chief Executive Geoff Dixon. "This is a step-change in passenger comfort and technology."

What's more, the aircraft has 50% more floor space than a 747 and can accommodate 450 fliers. It also boasts environment-friendly features. Qantas said the aircraft is quieter than other larger carriers, with a "noise footprint" similar to planes half the size. The airline calls the A380's Rolls Royce Trent 900 engine "the world's cleanest turbofan engine measured by emissions per pound of thrust."

Qantas has ordered a total of 20 A380s from manufacturer Airbus. Each A380 costs approximately $318 million.

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Qantas will have two A380 planes that fly from Melbourne and Sydney to L.A by mid-November. The airline said it will have two nonstop flights from Melbourne to L.A. and three nonstop flights from Sydney to L.A. per week.

Starting early next year, Qantas plans to add another A380 for Sydney to London, as well as Sydney to Singapore routes. The airline doesn't have flight or price schedules yet for these flights.

Qantas, however, isn't the first airline to offer A380 service. Singapore Airlines and Emirates started their A380 routes earlier this year. Still, Qantas said its aircraft is more luxurious because it was designed by top industrial designer Marc Newson, who has created products for Dom Perignon, Swarovski and many others. And no other airline offers as many name-brand products to passengers.

Tour, courtesy of Travolta
To show off its A380, Qantas boarded about 200 media and travel executives on a short flight up the California coast to San Francisco Monday afternoon. The take-off was extremely smooth, and the engine noise minimal.

Grease co-stars John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John--both are Qantas goodwill ambassadors--were on board. Travolta, a licensed pilot, sported a captain's uniform, and Newton-John wore a flight attendant's dress. Both stars walked through the cabin to meet and greet passengers. Singer-songwriter Babyface, a close friend of Travolta's, was also on the flight.

Travolta, who had a place in first-class, made a point of trying a seat in economy. To his surprise, the recline button swung the whole seat back and forward, similar to a rocking chair. "This is awesome!" he said.

Once the A380 reached cruising altitude, passengers were free to walk around both decks to explore the amenities. The cabin design is clean and spare, the colors in muted tones of gray, red and beige. The A380 will likely appeal to businesspeople and older travelers; younger fliers might prefer the hip and trendy d├ęcor of Virgin America planes.

Champagne and all sorts of gourmet hors d'oeuvres were served throughout the two-hour flight. The highlight of the trip: An up-close view of the Golden Gate Bridge. Passengers furiously snapped photos when the A380 hovered above the bridge.

But the global economic crisis is likely to cause travelers to cut back. Corporate belt-tightening is already affecting airlines and hotels. First- and business-class air traffic fell 1% from July 2007 to July 2008, according to the International Air Transport Association. That's following an average growth of 1.5% during the first half of the year. And while overall passenger traffic grew 5.4% in the first half of the year, it grew only 1.9% and 1.3% in July and August, respectively. It's now unclear whether Qantas will be able to fill its A380 flights.

Dixon, however, remains sanguine.

"It's never a good time in the aviation industry," he says, "to launch anything."

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Wendy Tanaka, Forbes
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