Up in the air

I had just run about four kilometers in twenty minutes. I’d had to take a stupid, slow bus from the last plane to the terminal. All but one of security had been officious and humourless. I didn’t want to have to move one step further. I leaned against a sturdy metal table, put my hand baggage down and called my fiancée to let her know I’d made it to the gate. Resting my left side against the table and wedging the phone between my cheek and my hand, I peered out through the terminal windows as I talked. White planes taxied slowly over the damp grey tarmac in front of me, picking their way through the scabby brown-white snow that remained once the ploughs had made their way through. Rows of miserable pine trees stretched out beyond the airfield, patches of snow resting in and beneath them. Above all of this, a murky grey sky loomed, threatening to dump more precipitation and cause further chaos. Grim. Very grim. Still talking on the phone, I stared down at my shoes and thought of the fun and excitement that awaited when/if I finally made it to Tokyo.

A good two or three minutes must have passed before a flashing orange light from beyond the window caught my attention. In the same instant that I moved my head up to see what the light was, the level of chatter in the vicinity increased and Gate C14 erupted into a chorus of camera bags unzipping. The flashing orange light was attached to a squat yellow truck, and the squat yellow truck was in turn attached to the most massive aeroplane I and many of my fellow travelers had ever seen. The Airbus A380 had arrived, generating the kind of excitement not associated with air travel for a good forty or fifty years.

Okay, so the A380 isn’t brand new – it’s been in service since 2007 – but I was flying Lufthansa, who have only taken delivery of their first superjumbos in the last few months. And boy did they seem proud of them. Models, stickers and keyrings were stacked high in the kiosks next to the A380 gates. Pull-up banners proudly explained the special boarding procedure for the huge jet, which was still nowhere to be seen by the time I rocked up at the gate. The slogan ‘A380 – Be Part Of It’ adorned all the merchandise and signage, marking out that the journey itself is supposed to be as exciting as the place you are going to.

The A380-800 draws in

Everything at Frankfurt Airport was running late because of heavy snowfall. The runways had been cleared and the temperature had risen a little, but because of the backlog of flights and the logistical chaos of planes being in the wrong place at the wrong time, very few things were going to schedule. This was why the plane that in only 45 minutes’ time was supposed to be departing for Tokyo was nowhere to be seen. One positive side-effect of this was that it gave me time to catch my breath, grab a bite to eat and restore my heart rate to normality after my invigorating sprint through the massive terminal building at Frankfurt (I stupidly hadn’t seen the delay on the departure boards).

The first thing that struck me about the A380 was its staggering size. Camera flashes went off left, right and centre as soon as the jet came into view, clouds of spray rising from the wet asphalt as the little truck pulled the world’s biggest airliner in to dock. Even from a distance of several hundred metres, the Airbus seemed visibly bigger and more striking than a Boeing 747. To say it looked like a beached whale being towed back out to sea by a fishing trawler would be do massive disrespect to this fine piece of engineering, so instead I’ll just say it looked disproportionately huge compared to everything else in sight. Strangely enough, it was when the truck turned round to bring the plane nose-first into the gate that the engineering brilliance of the A380 really became apparent. The wings sprout out of the base of the fuselage and curve upwards, pointing out at a moderate angle. Hanging off each wing are two massive Rolls-Royce engines, the silver metal casings surrounding the gaping black holes that suck air in and keep the whole thing in the air. Doors appear along the fuselage at both levels with startling frequency. The sheer mass of the superjumbo dwarfs the cockpit window, making the clusters of instruments visible behind the windscreen seem incapable of exerting any control at all over such a large machine.

Don't forget the pretzels!

With the aircraft parked up, the task of loading and stocking began. Containers full of catering supplies sprang up right the way along the right-hand side of the plane, the scissor lifts at full stretch as the little white boxes reached up to connect with the doors on the upper level. Crate after crate after crate was swallowed up by the massive cargo belly, and it took me a few minutes to realise that the luminous green blobs popping in and out of the doors were actually workers wearing fluorescent jackets, such was the disparity in size between a human being and the machine they are capable of building and (hopefully) controlling. I walked up to the glass at the gate window and, just as I would have done when I was seven years old, pressed my face against it to get a closer look. What I wouldn’t have done when I was seven, though, is then recoil backwards and declare under my breath “f**k, that thing’s big.” It just didn’t seem possible that something of this size would shortly be flying over Siberia at 36,000 feet.

How to board

But it appeared that was what was going to happen. With the cans of Coke, packets of peanuts and boxes of duty-free cigarettes safely loaded, boarding commenced. The rigorous procedure outlined on Lufthansa’s pull-up banners was followed with millimetric precision, the posh folks on the upper deck being loaded first followed by those at the extreme ends of the aircraft. Before I reached the walkway that led to the plane, further banners informed me that there would be a choice of two entrances onto the plane, and that I should choose my entrance according to my seat number. Passing up the chance to have a wee explore by going in the ‘wrong’ entrance, I proceeded to the front of the A380 where I would be seated.

Inside, the superjumbo – named ‘Tokio’ in accordance with the German way of spelling the Japanese capital city – was so new, clean and tidy I felt I should perhaps have taken my shoes off. The other side of the plane looked so far away that one could have organised a three-a-side game of football running across the way (curiously, however, a subsequent glance at Wikipedia informs me that a 747 is actually wider). To the left, a few steps led up to the cockpit door, which although fitted with a combination lock was snibbed open and ajar. Behind it I could see blue-shirted pilots reaching up and down, pressing buttons, flicking switches and chattering in German as they prepared their instruments for take-off. In front of me and to the right, a steep carpeted staircase led upstairs, where first and business class passengers sat insulated from the engine noise – because they had a floor all to themselves, they didn’t even have to endure the cattle class passengers traipsing through their section of the plane at the start of the flight. Finally, to my right were the aisles that led to the cheap seats, where I as usual would be sitting.

I’d be lying if I said there was anything staggering or brilliant about the layout of economy class, even though this was a split-new plane. There were two aisles, with ten seats across the way laid out exactly as one would expect. What was a bit weird was that, because the more expensive classes sat up above, the standard class started right at the front of the plane. This meant I would be sitting in front of the wings and within viewing distance of the cockpit door. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised at the space in economy class. As a man accustomed to traveling great distances in Boeing 7SardineCan7s – sorry, I meant to say 777s – I was again moved to swearing under my breath at the legroom on offer, the width of the armrests and the breadth of the seats. There was even a good foot or so of room between the edge of my seat and the fuselage wall, at which I was secretly disappointed for I am the kind of flyer who likes to rest his head against the wall to aid with sleeping. Still, the cabin was clean, comfy and roomy. You could tell this was a much newer design than the things I usually fly on.

The cockpit, courtesy of a cabin crew member

Testing out the seats, gawping at the engines out of the window and taking pictures of really mundane things like the cabin layout, connotations of children and sweet shops sprang to mind. This did not escape the attention of one of the cabin crew members, who upon noticing my massive eyes and Humboldtian appreciation of everything and anything in the vicinity offered to go up to the cockpit and take a couple of pictures for me. He returned several minutes later, my SD card now furnished with a shot of the instruments, one of the pilots and one of the stairs to the forbidden upper deck. The fact the attendant had noticed me taking pictures suggested I wasn’t the first person to have done so since the new model came into service. Flying was getting curious and exciting again.

The plane only half-full (I’ll return to that later), an efficient German announcement declared ‘Boarding Complete’. The safety video started, we pushed back from the gate and headed for the runway. I’d been told that the A380 was remarkably quiet on take off and flight, but whilst the usual vibrations while the engines warm up on the apron were more subdued than usual, I could still hear the Rolls-Royce powerplants working away. Whether that’s because I was close to the engines in cattle class or due to the fact my brain realised I was on an airliner and that there should be a low rumbling in the background at all times I don’t know, but in either case it wasn’t completely silent. The sucking of the engines increased, the plane began to lumber its way down the runway and, after a significant period of time in which I began to worry we were going to run out of tarmac, the A380 hoisted itself off the tarmac and into the air.

Approximately forty seconds later I started to hear a rather concerning rasping sound, which appeared to be coming from near to the wing. Perhaps as a result of my somewhat exhausted state, my first thought was not one of ‘oh no, maybe the engine’s broken’, rather it was one of ‘that’s going to be a real pain if it carries on like that for the next ten hours and stops me sleeping’. The rasping did not stop, however neither did it stop me from nodding off. By the time I was roused from my KO’d state with the offer of a pre-dinner drink, the funny noise had gone away. I surmised it must have been an oven or similar.

One of the many stunning views afforded by the on-flight computer

Machine-o-philiac, über-nerd or just a big kid, call me what you want. But there are some things on planes, cars and indeed any form of transport that I just love. And detailed information screens are pretty damn high on that list. I found the flight information maps and data on the entertainment system to be absolutely stunning, complete with a choice of three real-time cameras, detailed satellite maps that didn’t have MegaDrive graphics, and 3-D terrain models showing a beautifully-rendered Lufthansa A380 making its way across the Eurasian landscape at a sedate pace. I quite easily spent more time gazing at this form of geography porn than I did perusing the in-flight movies. When I studied German Literature at university, one of our professors told us that a book’s author will always have an ideal reader in mind. Well, the programmer of these maps clearly had an ideal user in mind, and that user was me.

Once the food had been delivered and the tiredness kicked in I calmed down and spent the rest of the flight behaving like a normal passenger. Being the only person in my row I was able to stretch out across the seats and get a good lie down, but given the newness of the jet I would have felt a bit guilty had I elected to put my feet up on the seats. It wasn’t just my row that was empty, either. The phrase ‘crumbs in a biscuit tin’ could have been aptly used to describe the population of the lower deck of the A380 flight I was on. Whether this is a regular occurrence or whether it’s just because my flight was a midweek journey I don’t know, but I can’t help but wondering if, in spite of its technical brilliance, the Airbus A380 is just too big for our needs. By that, what I mean is that maybe there is a finite number of people that are ever going to need to go from one place to another at any one time, and that the capacity of the Airbus perhaps exceeds that number. On the flip side, if this means we can run fewer flights and cram everyone onto one bigger plane every other day, then surely that has to be a good thing.

Of course, one has to ask whether it is ethically questionable to appreciate and enjoy something that is as fundamentally destructive to the environment as a massive jet plane. Having just spent a fair bit of time with one of my students taking through Yuriko Saito’s work on appreciating natural environments that are harmful to humans and the contexts of aesthetic appreciation, this was playing on my mind a lot as I unashamedly marveled at the technical sophistication of the A380. As the cleaner at Frankfurt Airport who put his brush down, parked his dustcart up and walked over to the window to admire the A380 mid-shift demonstrated, though, what a plane of this size and complexity definitely does is put the adventure and excitement back into flying (for now). How we get there is just as important as where we go, which in my view is exactly how travel should be.

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