Sitting as I write this at 37,000 feet in altitude, I can't help but notice how quiet the aircraft is.
True, I'm flying Qantas business class from Sydney to Los Angeles, and there's not a single crying baby. But that's not the explanation for the relative tranquility.
No, the reason it is quiet is the aircraft itself, a hulking Airbus A380 -- the largest passenger jet to ever take to the skies.
Babies are a popular target among flyers. But for the most part, the noise on a plane is organic -- the product of the jet hurtling through the sky at close to 600 mph and the spectacular engine thrust that is required to produce flight. But the sheer enormity of the A380 -- it weighs 610,000 pounds, 26% more than the Boeing 747-800 -- provides a buffer to that noise. At least that's what I'm surmising on this, just my second flight aboard an A380, my first having occurred just six days earlier on my flight to Australia.
In the realm of commercial flying, no aircraft type has captured the imagination more than the jumbo jet. For decades, of course, the 747 was the vanguard of the rarified jumbo sector. And the romance of the 747 had as much to do with visions of well-heeled elites sipping cocktails around an upstairs Pan Am bar as it did with its sheer size. But make no mistake, that size was also a big piece of the story. To look at a 747 is to wonder how the hell does this massive steel tube get airborne.
Nowadays the 747 is on its way out, having already been dropped from the fleets of every U.S. airline. But the A380 lives on, thanks mostly to the largesse of Emirates, which early this year made a lifesaving order of 36 A380s, just as Airbus gave voice to the possibility of ending production of its most glamorous jet due to lack of demand.
For the most part, airlines today favor the new-generation smaller widebodies, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which can fly almost as far as the A380, but with just two engines rather than four.
The front staircase on a Qantas A380.
But does the Dreamliner have a staircase?
The A380 does.
In any case, being a guy who covers airlines for a living, it had been high time that I experienced an A380 for myself so I could truly know whether flying on one feels just different.
My verdict? Yes. But I don't want to exaggerate.
To me, the most essential element of the flying experience is the very fact that you're in flight. I know. That's obvious. But whether I'm in a three-seat Cessna or a jumbo jet, I'm in the air, seeing the world below from a perspective that simply wouldn't be possible without flight.
The second and third factors that most shape my flight experience are seat and service. Give me a lie-flat business seat and it doesn't much matter what type of plane I'm on, it's going to be a lot more pleasant than being squeezed into an economy seat with my knees in my chest and little or no recline.
Still, as I write this, I can't help but feel that the A380 is making my flight better still. For one thing, the enormous girth of the aircraft just makes it fly smoother. That's not to say we've been immune to turbulence. Passing through a rough patch in the South Pacific, I had to mind my Bloody Mary to make sure it didn't spill. Still, prior to my maiden A380 voyage a week ago, I'd never been on a flight in which the feeling of takeoff was so unpronounced. I'm pretty sure I could have slept through the takeoff on this flight, a boast I wouldn't make for other aircraft.
The author sits in the business class lounge of a Qantas Airbus A380, looking uncouth in his Qantas pajamas.
Similarly, the sensation of ascent and descent are diminished by the sheer bulk of the plane. If air travel makes you a little queasy, you're sure to appreciate an A380.
But it's in noise -- the relative lack of it -- that the A380 really delivers a unique experience. Imagine the noise while flying in the back rows of a standard Airbus or Boeing narrowbody as something akin to being in a home with an open window just off an interstate highway. Well, being on an A380 isn't quite like living on a quiet neighborhood street, but at least the steady traffic outside is just two-lane, and no one is going faster than 35 mph.
Oh, and then there's the staircases -- two of them, each with fourteen steps to be precise. I went up and down each staircase once on my flight to Sydney. So far on this trip, I've done another descent and climb. But I think I'll do a little more step work now. After all, I'm not going to get to do that the next time on an Airbus A330 or a Boeing 777.