A3XX: Size may not be everything

29 June 2000

Onboard jacuzzis, gyms, business centres and separate bedrooms. The proposed Airbus Industrie superjumbo A3XX will change the face of air travel.

But will airlines buy it? And will passengers want to fly it?

The future of airport hubs, the infrastructure of international airports and perhaps the viability of some airlines will be challenged by the arrival of the 555-seat A3XX in 2005.

The A3XX has focused attention on the way airlines will have to configure their fleets and the way in which airports will cope with a doubling of passengers over the next 15 years.

Airlines which have so far lined up behind the A3XX – Emirates, Singapore Airlines, Virgin Atlantic and Air France – are banking on the fact that growing air-traffic congestion, especially at airports in western Europe and Asia, will force airlines to use larger aircraft.

Others, like British Airways, argue that the future is of more and smaller aircraft flying more frequently to long-haul destinations. BA, one of the first airlines to fly the Boeing 747, claims it is reaping the benefits of concentrating on more frequent services in smaller aircraft such as the Boeing 777. It sees no justification for ordering the larger aircraft.

Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson, not unexpectedly, has a different view. “We won’t have as many as 555 passengers because we will have luxuries like more leg room, bars, even a Jacuzzi and separate bedrooms. It will be an incredible plane – a bit like a cruise liner.”

The main deck of the A3XX will be the widest in the world. Each seat will have its own armrest; a lower deck will accommodate sleeper cabins, a business centre with a bar and library, and even a nursery.

The first difference for A3XX passengers will be the entrance area, reminiscent of a cruise liner, with a straight, dual-lane staircase leading to the upper deck. The two wide-body cabins will run the full length of the aircraft with stairs fore and aft. The upper deck is similar to an A330 or A340, while the main deck offers more width than the 747. The plane will have a range of 13,115 km.

The basic 555-seat, three-class configuration variant will cost US$212 million. To justify spending that amount of money, the airline industry is demanding an aircraft with operating costs 15-20 percent lower than existing jumbos.

Airbus and Boeing are divided on 20-year projections. Airbus predicts a market for 1,500 superjumbos. Boeing says there is no such market, but plans a “stretch” 747, able to carry more than 500 people, in response to Airbus move.

Whoever is right, there promises to be a fierce fight for clients. “It will not be a war, but an imaginative contest,” said Jean-Luc Lagardere, co-CEO of a new company launched to build the A3XX.

The company will be 80 percent-owned by the European Aeronautics Defense and Space Co, formed last year from the merger of France’s Aerospatiale Matra, Germany’s DaimlerChrysler Aerospace and Spain’s Casa. British Aerospace Systems, the fourth partner in Airbus Industrie, will hold the remaining 20 percent.

Critics say airports will not be able to cope with the 580-tonne A3XX, those living close to airports will not put up with its noise and passengers will be wary of flying with so many other people – there are plans for a stretch-A3XX with up to 1,000 seats.

Just getting on and off the plane could take longer than flying from Singapore to Bangkok.

Airbus insists the A3XX has been designed to fit into an 80 metre by 80 metre “box”, allowing it to use existing runways, taxiways and aircraft stands at the world’s big international airports.

Further, the four-engined A3XX is planned to be at least as quiet as existing Boeing 747s, and cleaner, in terms of environmental emissions. Also, the layout and number of exits will be sufficient to allow a 90-minute turnaround from the moment an A3XX lands to the moment it takes off again. An Airbus spokesman said that the aircraft would be capable of operating “at any airport, and at any gate” currently handling Boeing 747-400s. Even so, some changes will have to be made to airport operations.

Air bridges capable of boarding and deplaning passengers directly from the upper and lower decks of the A3XX, plus baggage, immigration and customs facilities capable of handling more than 500 passengers simultaneously, are two of the issues which will be tackled by airport and government authorities hoping to welcome the Airbus giant.

Airbus believes the challenges of processing 550 passengers quickly will be solved by technological advances being made with smart cards, such as Swissair’s e-track. Currently being used by Swissair frequent flyers on European flights, e-track allows passengers to board without checking in.

Airbus has been working with 30 airlines and 40 international airports to make the transition to the A3XX as smooth as possible. SIA wants 16 of the superjumbos, Air France has called for 10 and Emirates is keen to buy up to five with an option for five more. Cathay Pacific and Qantas are among other airlines showing strong interest.

Boeing has enjoyed a 30-year monopoly of the very large aircraft market with its 747 jumbo. Now the A3XX – if it gets sufficient firm orders to make production viable – will challenge the competitive balance in the world civil aircraft industry.

Let the battle begin.

The Big Impact
January - March 2023 eBook

How is 2023 shaping up for Asia’s travel industry?

Read Now

JDS Travel News JDS Viewpoints JDS Africa/MI