By Chris Sloan
As a confirmed “AvGeek”, I have been fortunate enough to have a number of unique experiences involving the Airbus A380. In 2003-04 while a TV network executive at TLC, I oversaw a 4-part documentary on the building of the WhaleJet and was able to procure John Travolta to host. In 2004, I paid a visit to the Airbus A380 Factory in Toulouse just as the giant jet was beginning final assembly. In 2007, I was fortunate enough to be on the inaugural passenger flight with launch customer Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Sydney (Airways November, 2007). In 2011, when Lufthansa launched the first (and still only) A380 services to Miami, I was very involved in coordinating the event which featured a DC-3 and DC-7 flying in just in advance of the A380′s landing as kind of an airborne parade. Despite all this, I had only actually flown on an Airbus A380 one-time, five years before on that inaugural flight. My most recent VLA (Very Large Airplane) flight was on the Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental inaugural flight (Airways August, 2012). Comparing the two twenty-first century jumbos and experiencing Lufthansa’s A380 Business Product was too much to pass up so when a business trip to Europe happened to fall on my birthday, I decided to gift myself a Business Class ticket on Lufthansa’s seasonal Airbus A380 flight 463 from Miami to Frankfurt.
As this was an international flight and I had requested to be onboard early to photograph the A380, I showed up 2 hours before the flight at Miami International’s world class and newest terminal, South Terminal J where Lufthansa and other Star Alliance carriers operate from. Even though the Business Cabin was checking in full, Lufthansa staffs their ticket counters and gates with a very efficient team to ensure a quick check-in. With 2 hours before the flight, there were 7 passengers in cue, but I waited no longer than 5 minutes to reach the check-in desk. The very friendly agent offered me a pass to the Club America Lounge, which Lufthansa shares with other airlines at Terminal J. Though far from opulent, it is quiet, well-appointed, and offers a full range of drinks and snacks. With only Lufthansa’s 1-2 flights per day at Miami, a dedicated lounge wouldn’t make sense. After enjoying a quick drink and the expansive view of the tarmac, I took the short stroll over to Gate J-17. This unique gate has 3 jet bridges and was built at a cost of over $1.5 million USD just for Lufthansa’s Airbus A380 service.
Typical of the German carrier, the flight was scheduled to depart on time at 4:20pm. There would be no time to waste if I were to photograph the massive jet and get a behind-the-scenes tour of the cabin, flight deck, lower deck crew quarters, and flight deck crew quarters from Captain Roland Schmidt who has flown virtually every aircraft in the Lufthansa fleet in his 30 years with the airline and Chief Pursor Sybille Von Dewitz who also has over 30 years with the airline. Germans sometimes have an undeserved reputation for being “all business” but Captain Schmidt and Chief Pursor, and in fact the entire crew couldn’t have been more welcoming and warm. They had no idea I was a journalist, all they know was that I was an enthusiast who appreciated the A380. Captain Schmidt, who wore a bunch of bracelets commemorating his backstage passes to rock concerts was very enthusiastic about the A380, declaring all other aircraft inferior to the A380 and one that is very easy to fly, yet still a “pilots airplane”. He was joined on the flight deck by 2 First Officers for the long-haul flight across the Atlantic. Today’s cabin crew would consist of 20 flight attendants under the direction of Chief Pursor Von Dewitz.
I ascended the A380′s signature grand front stair-case more evocative of a cruise ship than a plane to tour the ultra-exclusive First Class cabin with its 8 19.7″ wide seats with flat beds and 60″ pitch, cavernous luxurious lavatories (the nicest part of the entire plane in my view), electric window shades (a first for me to see) in the classic Junkers-inspired finish, and beautiful buffet with an ice-bucket of champagne set out among orchids. This concept felt exclusive like a private jet yet airy in contrast to the Singapore and Emirates First Class cabins with their enclosed suites. Jumping ahead for a moment, in-flight I poked my head into First and can vouch that this is the quietest cabin I have ever heard, with its extra insulation and sealed curtain working miracles.
I quickly toured the 4 economy class cabins on the lower deck which have a typical 10 abreast seating configuration with seat 31″ wide and 31″ pitch. Lufthansa just announced a Premium Economy Cabin to follow suit with many of its European competitors. One touch I’ve always liked is Lufthansa’s subdued signage and branding of each cabin. Typical of Lufthansa, they don’t resort to some of the amenities like stand up bars, duty-free stores, or showers of their competitors instead preferring to utilize the space for additional seating and space, especially in the premium cabins. There were 2 very tasteful touches that I had not seen before on an A380: “the Loo with a View” window in the foreword Business Class lavatory and semi-transparent Lufthansa branded visors covering all the galley equipment during boarding. This was one of those “Why didn’t I think of that?” moments as I have always found the industrial ovens and storage containers very unwelcoming during boarding.
I exited the A380 and went back out into the main gate area to participate in the boarding process. In contrast to other airlines who split premium and economy business classes on a single deck, Lufthansa’s Premium 8 First Class passengers and 98 Business Class passengers are all located on the upper deck and board through one of the 3 jetways while the 420 Economy Class passengers all situated on the lower-deck all board through the other 2 jetways. A side note: on the new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, Lufthansa’s First Class Cabin and one of the Business Class Cabin are located on the lower deck as those are the quietest parts on that aircraft. Boarding began promptly at 3:40pm The boarding was accomplished in less then 30 minutes…amazing!
Our conveyance of the day was “City of Brussels” D-AIMJ (MSN073), Lufthansa’s tenth and newest A-380 in the fleet (they have a further 15 on order), delivered less than 6 months prior. Lufthansa became the 5th operator of the Airbus A380 on June 11, 2010 with a flight from Frankfurt to Tokyo. I made my way to the upper deck forward Business Class cabin located just behind First Class Cabin Galley. the Front Business Class cabin on the A380 with its 10 rows of 6 abreast seating doesn’t feel as intimate at the 8 rows of 4 abreast seating on Lufthansa’s 747-8 Intercontinental, but it certainly felt roomy. The Airbus A380 upper deck basically is the same width of a Boeing 777. The upper deck is 19′ 5″ in contrasted to the 19′ 3″ in width of the 777 while the main deck measures 21′ 7″ in in width. My seat, 15A afforded me an excellent view of the wing. The Business Class seating is the older 2006 era Business Class Product with the 168 degree angled reclining seat arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. These 98 seats are located within 2 cabins and have a roomy and competitive 57-60″ pitch and 19.6″ width. Cloaked in a blue fabric, they aren’t quite as comfortable as a flat-bed seat or attractive as Lufthansa’s world class new generation “Flying V” Business Cabin but I found the current seats comfortable enough awake and while asleep. They also featured a USB port and AC power port requiring no adapters for U.S. As these are new seats on a new aircraft, LH has yet to announce when the new “Flying V” Class will make it to the A380. The massage function, unnoticed by many, was certainly appreciated by me. I immediately put one of my favorite features of the A380 (and 747) to use: the dual sidewall storage bins unique to the upper deck of these aircraft. Meanwhile, champagne and water were offered, as is custom, during boarding.
Lufthansa, famed for their punctuality had been hit by a week of delays at their Frankfurt hub due to heavy snow, but with Frankfurt weather reporting fine, we would not be delayed today. At 4:20PM, we blocked out on-time and taxied over to Miami International’s Runway 10,500 foot 26L where we were cleared for a direct easterly departure. Our A380 was full in the premium cabins, but economy was only 2/3 sold. Coupled with a relatively light cargo and fuel load, we were only taking off at 476 gross tons payload out of a maximum of 560 tons. At 4:38pm, we commenced the quick and eerily quiet take-off roll. The A380 is still quieter than the 747-8I and the new Dreamliner on take-off and in cruise. V1 came on quickly at 140 mph, at 156 mph we rotated and overall in less than a minute we were airborne into the beautiful Miami skies. This gave me the first opportunity to watch the 3 cameras on the Inflight Entertainment System located on the belly, flight deck, and the amazing “tail cam” with its birds-eye view of the wings and forward fuselage. I was transfixed by these views as well as that of the A380′s flexing gull-like wing. The 747-8I doesn’t have the tail cam which is my favorite. Lufthansa dubs their flight information system, moving maps air-show, and camera display NiceView and they weren’t kidding…well almost. The only issues I had with the entire flight centered around the IFE. The moving map air-show and flight information malfunctioned and my headphones had 1 speaker out. The high-fidelity Sennheiser headphones were quickly replaced and functioned well, but NiceView didn’t play “nice” the entire flight.
We were just 20 minutes in the air and the menus and hot towels were passed out. A bottle of water and the amenity kit consisting of eyeshades, booties, and toothbrush were already waiting for us in the nifty extra storage bin above the IFE monitor. Captain Schmidt came on to the PA as we climbed to our initial cursing altitude of 37,000 feet, a leisurely 37 minutes after take-off, and informed us that even with a powerful Atlantic headwind we would be looking at an 8:33 flight time some 13 minutes longer than the typical scheduled time, eventually climbing to 41,000 feet 2 hours and 20 minutes into the flight. Trying to avoid that headwind as best as we could, our southerly routing would take us over the Bahamas, the open Atlantic Ocean, then the Azores before coming ashore over Northern France and then into Frankfurt. Our captain warned that there might be a few light bumps along the way due to CAT (Clear Air Turbulence) around the Azores, yet turned the seatbelt light off which would remain off the entire flight.
40 minutes after take-off we were each handed a small bag of cashews and the beverage service began. Highlights of the vast list included Champagne Jacquart Brut Mosaique from France and the two wines I decided to sample: a 2008 Chateau La Roqye de By, Medoc France and a 2009 Kamptal Zweigelt, Weingut Brundlmayer, Austria. I do not have a sommelier’s palette so I won’t even attempt to describe the wines and champagne except that I enjoyed them. There was a full selection of spirits and liquors offered as well. I try to keep hydrated, especially during long-flights so I generally have no more than a glass or two of wine and stick to water.
The highlight of any flight is often the meal service which began after 80 minutes in the air and this flight would prove to be no exception: Our appetizers were: Tuna Carpaccio with Sarachi Aioli, pickled Ginger and baby micro greens; Salad of Plum, Watercress, and Ricotta with Apricot Puree; or my choice: the Seared Beef Tataki with green Papaya and Peanut sauce accompanied by slice of pretzel bread, natch! The Tataki had a nice contrasty taste and texture, especially when it was accompanied by a 2011 Riesling Trocken Chardonnay from Germany.
The unhurried, but cordial, meal service continued on to the main courses about 24 minutes later. Lufthansa made it difficult on the passengers with three tantalizing choice of main’s: Tenderloin of Beef with Sweet Potato Hash and Plum Chutney; Fresh Water Prawns in Fennel Saffron Reduction with Fingerling Potato; Eggplant Cannelloni with Tomato Compote. I always try the steak as a sort of “acid test” of an airline’s catering, as we all know how difficult it is to prepare for and taste a steak at altitude. The tenderloin was juicy and on par with other steaks I have tried in the air. The Sweet Potato Hash and Plum Chutney was off the charts delicious. I almost asked for seconds, I am embarrassed (only slightly) to say. I am a picky eater and wanted to really to make the best choice so kudos to the patience and generosity of the Lufthansa cabin team as I queried them and photographed the selections. They were pretty proud of the offerings so they seemed to welcome all my inquiries with a smile. Airline’s seem to excel at different aspects of the meal service and Lufthansa’s sweet spot (pardon the pun) is the desert and cheese plate. The elaborate presentation on the trolley, worthy of a fine restaurant, was definitely the highlight of the meal service for me. The crew spared my having to make a choice and offered me a bit of all 3 items: Sage Derby, Gruyere and Cambozola Cheese, Apple Spice Cake with candied Almonds, and a Fruit Salad. How could I say no?
After all the plates were cleared away, the coffee and liqueurs were offered, but I had to show some willpower so I decided to just skip those and begin sampling the inflight entertainment system (IFE). Lufthansa’s IFE is the Panasonic X2 system introduced on the Airbus A380 five years ago. I have used this exact system on other Lufthansa flights and always found it user-friendly, very comprehensive, and the perfect cure for long-haul boredom. This time, however the IFE let me down. The 10.4″ screen displays a well stocked variety of movies, TV shows, 100s of CD’s, 30 radio stations, games, books, Berlitz language courses, special destination information, and a special kids section with music, movies, books, and games. I really just wanted to watch the map and listen to music while doing some work. This is where the IFE let me down. Besides the non-working Airshow, the CDs and radio stations kept randomly pausing inexplicably. The rest of the IFE’s offerings including the movies and TV shows worked fine however. Unlike on Lufthansa’s Boeing 747-400s and some of their other long-haul aircraft, the airline’s new, blazing fast and innovative SkyNet inflight internet product is not offered on the A380 (nor 747-8 I) yet but is coming. By the way, Lufthansa pioneered inflight internet back in 2006 with Boeing’s now expired Connexion.
The lights were gradually and gently turned down 3 hours and 20 minutes into the flight. Most passengers took advantage of the opportunity to sleep. I dozed off for a couple of hours in my angled-seat. The flight crew offered me a blanket and pillow when they saw I was uncovered which was very thoughtful. During the next few hours, we intermittently encountered light to light-to-moderate chop. The “WhaleJet” A380 handles it with aplomb with its massive wings and gust suppression technology doing the trick. Even though the North Atlantic can be a turbulent place, especially during the winter, most passengers didn’t notice. If we were on a lesser plane, I am sure we all would’ve noticed the chop. On our flight, the seat-belt sign never came on again until initial descent.
2 hours before our arrival into Frankfurt, the cabin lights very gradually came on to bring us all out of the darkness. The considerate crew began a very quiet and unobtrusive breakfast service so as not to disturb those who wanted to sleep. A 2nd hot towel came out as a prelude to the morning meal: fresh fruit plate; ham, turkey breast and cheddar cheese or cream cheese on croissant; and my thoroughly delicious choice the omelette with red Bliss Potato wedges, and grilled tomato. 36 minutes before arrival, the flight deck crew throttled the giant Rolls Royce Trent 900 engines back for our gradual descent into Frankfurt am Main Airport. The Captain came on to announce that the weather was good, told us we would just be 1 minute late to the gate, and bid us adieu. The sunrise, descent, and landing were particularly dramatic on the “NiceView” cameras.
We touched down at 7:20AM CEST, and after flying 5,154 statute miles we were on the ground after 8 hours and 37 minutes of flying time. After a ten-minute taxi to the gate the flight was over. I then experienced the easiest and quickest immigration from an international flight I have ever encountered. The famous FRAport baggage system didn’t disappoint and my luggage was already waiting for me after emerging from immigration.
In conclusion, Lufthansa offers the efficient service it has always been know for, but those who haven’t traveled with the airline before or often may be surprised at how much flair and warmth is a key part of this German carrier. The quality of the crew and service even out-shown the A380 which isn’t an easy thing to do. As far as the inevitable A (Airbus A380) vs. B (Boeing 747-8I) comparison goes, for the moment this is only a Lufthansa comparison as LH is the world’s only operator of both (Korean Air will be second). I am very impressed with the new “Flying V” Business Cabin on their 747-8 I but this will come to the A380 eventually. The Boeing 747-8 I’s upper deck can’t be beat for its intimacy and exclusiveness for a Business Cabin. The A380 is somehow quieter, particularly in the First Class Cabin. Aesthetically (and this is really subjective) it’s advantage 747-8 Intercontinental but the A380 wing is a piece of sculpture. Choosing between both is a “high class” problem and I personally am just as happy on either aircraft.
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