Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 - Inaugural Morning, October 25, 2007
Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 - Inaugural Morning, October 25, 2007
On the evening of October 26, 1958 amidst a backdrop of glamour and anticipation, a Pan Am Boeing 707 Clipper departed New York's Idlewild Airport bound for Paris Le Bourget. Though a BOAC Comet had proceeded that inaugural Clipper flight by a few weeks, it was the 707 that truly ushered in the jet age. My grandparents were on that flight. As a young airline aficionado, I would listen spellbound as my grandfather regaled me with the story of that history making flight.
When I first heard about the E-Bay auction of seats on the world's first scheduled flight of the Airbus A-380, or "Big Fella" as the Aussies have taken to calling it, I knew this was my opportunity to make history. Though it was an incredibly difficult time to take a week off to leave my business, travel to the other side of the world from my home in Miami Beach, and most importantly leave my 7-month son, my supportive wife Carla urged me to realize this dream. So with not a little trepidation, I embarked on the Byzantine process of bidding on the tickets. Due to the nature of the event and the fact that all the money raised went to charity, this was no ordinary E-Bay Auction. Bidders had to place a $1,000 deposit and provide proof of a valid passport. Seats would be released in arbitrary blocks over a couple of weeks to create a living, supply and demand marketplace. I had to be very vigilant not to overpay and find a willing co-conspirator to travel with me. You were required to purchase a pair of tickets to guarantee a window seat in economy. I placed my bid, minutes before my seat auction ended. $2700 later, my friend Oscar Garcia (a former 747 pilot) and I had bought our way into the history books.
Singapore Airlines, the word superb doesn't even do them justice, then went to great lengths to fly 100s of people, myself included, from all over the world to Singapore, at massively reduced prices. Ramona Donan in Singapore's LA office was a hero to myself and many other American's whom she shepherded over to Singapore all the way from America. I had a very narrow window to travel and wanted the prior flight to the inaugural to be on the Queen of the Skies in her waning days, a Boeing 747-400, which seemed sort of poetic…Yes, I am an airline geek.
Flash forward 49 years later nearly to the day to 2AM on October 25, 2007, I am "Sleepless In Singapore", not because of the jet lag, but because in 6 hours, I too would soon be taking part in the biggest aviation milestone in nearly 4 decades, one unlikely to be eclipsed for many years into the future. Many emotions and thoughts were flashing through my mind. I had a strong connection to the Airbus A380, not only as an avid aviation fanatic (to put it mildly), but had overseen the production of a documentary on the aircraft hosted by John Travolta, when I ran production at the TLC Network. I had the privilege to visit the Airbus A-380 factory in Toulouse as it was just being completed. With all her production problems, commercial viability questions, controversies, fallout, and delays, I always rooted for her. I was happy that for one day the headlines would be celebratory, not derogatory.
I had also been fascinated and envious of those on those first scheduled flights, but especially the one that occurred on January 21, 1970 & the inaugural of the Queen of The Skies, the Boeing 747. My January 21st, 1970 had arrived on that October morning of 2007. I had had high expectations were one of the most thrilling moments of my life, but what made it so special would be completely unexpected, more personally profound, and revealed later long after the mighty Whale had returned to terra firma on its first scheduled arrival into Sydney.
It's 5:00AM at Singapore's Changi Airport. As we step out of the car, we notice an empty terminal save for one streamer adorned ticketing zone buzzing, and I do mean buzzing with excitement. Singapore Airlines refused to miss an opportunity to make the event special, even at check-in. There was a paparazzi backdrop and red carpet where your picture was taken for your own custom stamp. Cameras rolled and flashbulbs popped as representatives of the press: CNN, BBC, German Television ZDF, the LA Times, etc only added to the feeling that this was as big as a Hollywood Premiere…except, this sequel (to the Boeing 747) was 37 years in the making.
Making our way to Changi Airport gate F31 at 6:00AM, the boarding lounge had been converted into a standing room only party/champagne buffet/press conference replete with a chamber music quartet. At the boarding gate, 2 of the famed "Singapore Girls" standing in front of a yellow ribbon held sway over the crowd. There was quite a line of people cueing up to have their picture taken with them. It was dark outside but as the sun began to rise, the guests started to notice the real star of the show, Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 9V-SKA, msn13, as it emerged from its cloak of darkness. The action shifted over to the giant windows where outside the Giant was tended to by a small, make that a large army of ground crew. With only 1 A380 in commercial operation in the entire world until January 2008, there was no option but all systems go.
Around 6:30AM, the flight crew showed up to board. You would've been excused if you thought U-2's Bono or Oprah had showed up. They were mobbed like rock stars, and seemed genuinely surprised by all the commotion thrust upon them. We noticed a special pilot in a different uniform, Captain Jacques Rosay, the chief pilot of the A380 program and first to fly the Beast. Amazingly, he was largely unnoticed except by a few of us. 30 minutes later, the beaming Singapore CEO Chew Choon Seng, took the stage to present a check of $1.3 million dollars to three very worthy charities: The Singapore Children's Hospitals, The Singapore Community Chest, and Doctors Without Frontiers. With his new Airbus delivered only 10 days earlier, if Seng was at all concerned he didn't show it. He wisely hedged his bets with certainly large abundances of staff on the ground and onboard. When Seng cut a yellow ribbon, declaring the flight open, the crowd pushed forward past the secured area. I positioned myself behind him to get a photo of his hand cutting the tape. On any ordinary day, this would've caused a security meltdown.
Boarding of SQ380 bound for Sydney began promptly at 7:15AM as Julian Hayward, the Briton, who had paid $100,300 for 2 tickets in the Suites was invited to be first to board. There was thunderous applause. New Business and Economy were next to board through the A380 ready 3 jet-bridge gate: 2 fingers docked to the lower deck and 1 to the upper deck. Boarding went amazingly fast and smooth, silencing many critics. Our bridge led to the upper deck that in itself was a first. With people running around snapping pictures (myself included) and touring the plane, I asked myself how thi plane could possibly depart on-time. We were bracing for agitated crew and panicked announcements for everyone to take their seats to head-off an embarrassing late departure. We were seated in 77K and 77H in the intimate economy cabin on the upper deck. Miraculously and calmly with nary a stern word from the crew, everything just settled down and precisely at 8:00AM we pushed back. We noticed ground crew up and down the ramp stopping in their tracks to gawk at the New Queen Of The Skies. Even through the windows, we could see throngs of spectators in the terminal staring agape at the Beast. This is what it must've felt like to be a passenger on those 1935 China Clipper, 1958 707, or 1970 747 service inaugurals.
At 8:13AM, we began our 40-45 second eerily quiet take-off roll. We later found out that the Rolls Royce Trent 970s were only operating at 76% thrust. With very little cargo and a modest fuel load, the Whale was primed to leap into the sky. At 8:15AM and 154 knots, the A380 rotated to wild applause, whoops, and cheers! Chills went down my spine as the reveille lasted over a minute. We gracefully climbed over Singapore and indeed were "King's Of The World". The vast wing, designed for an even larger A380 variant, put on a dazzling show with its triple slotted ailerons vectoring us out of over the South China Sea onward south over Indonesia and rejoining land over Northwest Australia. The only issue we noticed was a slight glitch in the pressurization system on climb causing some minor ear popping and lack of A/C. These would be the only glitches we would notice on the flight. 20 minutes into the climb, the seatbelt sign came off (it wouldn't come back on until descent) and to a cacophony of clinking seat belts coming off, the party began!
As we leveled off at our initial cruise of 35,000 feet the famed Singapore Girls (and Boys) came through the cabin with generous pours of Charles Heidsieck Champagne, a finer vintage than what's even normally reserved for business class. The convivial atmosphere of people from around the world, glass of libations in hand, chatting and walking about harkened back to an era of flight that ended in the 1970s. With a male: female ratio of 7:3, it felt slightly more a stag party than a cocktail party but the elegance factor was high. Friendships were made, business cards exchanged, and glasses clinked as people of 35 nationalities from around the world immersed themselves in this once in a life-time shared experience. The whisper quiet of the cruise, thanks to the taciturn Trents, only heightened the experience. On-board, were 31 cabin crew, 4 pilots, and 455 passengers. Of those 455 pax, the youngest was 10 months, the oldest was a 91 year-old man in Suites Class flying with his son. The passenger manifest revealed 28% were Australians, 14% were Singaporeans, 11% were Britons, and 8% were American's. Surprisingly, there were very few French and German's onboard. The German couple in front of us, 2 of 4 total representing Deutschland, were the constant focus of 2 German TV News crews.
As the beverage and canapé service continued, Oscar and I marveled at how the cabin crew executed excellent service after service with smiles and joy in spite of the jammed aisles. They were obviously proud to have been selected to operate the flight and with the exception of just a few, had never been airborne on the 380 either.
With scant chop in the cruise and feeling like Jonah, we embarked on our tour of the cavernous whale. Our upper deck perch revealed a cabin cross section which was essentially wider than the width of an A340 stacked full length on a wider cabin than a Boeing 747. A 2-4-2 upstairs and 3-4-3 lower deck configuration, yielded the widest economy seat I had ever sat in with. The ultra slim Weber seats had a nice recline angle and foot rest but were a little too firm. With a 34" seat pinch, we weren't complaining however. There were thoughtful touches: 1 10.6" KrisWorld screen, a vanity mirror in the fold down tray, a seatback drink holder, coat rack, and even a small storage compartment for my glasses.
In spite of its magnificence, the most neglected feature on board was the next generation Panasonic X2 KrisWord system. It boasts 100 movies, 180 TV shows, 7000 CDs, seat-to-seat calling, real time news and travel information, and an outstanding graphics user interface reminiscent of an Apple Macintosh. With the floorshow garnering the most attention, most screens were tuned to the Airshow. I could write an entire story altogether on this cutting edge IFE.
We moved forward into the upper deck business cabin and were absolutely struck by the sea change in noise and activity between the party in the back and the sedate business class. The new business class seats, designed by James Park Associates were very wide and high, almost l ike private suites themselves so unless someone was in the aisle, they were invisible. The 60 sumptuously leather tailored seats, in a world beating 1-2-1 configuration in 1 long cabin on the upper deck, are the widest business seats in the sky. 2 people can fit side by side in 1 in these plush airborne loungers. The seats boast a gorgeous 15.4" Kris World LCD screen that you can plug your computer or IPOD into. The cabin felt so empty and businesslike that we almost felt sorry for the passengers. Singapore calls it New Business Class and it was supposed to debut on the A380 but due to the delivery debuts had debuted on the 777-300ERs. New Business Class, surprisingly was the location of the only standup bar which you would miss if you blinked. Singapore clearly chose to forego the hype of showers, stores, and bars in favor of industry defining room and seating in all classes.
When descending the elegant staircase at the bow of the aircraft heading for first, we felt we were surely in a ship. Once we turned the corner, we revised our impressions to that of a private Pullman railroad car. First class on doesn't exist on Singapore Airbus A380s; it is branded as Singapore Suites. Singapore charges a 25% premium for their premium cabins and for good reason. These 12 suites are truly private rooms in a 1-2-1 configuration. Designed by a French yacht designer and finished in rich red wood, they are almost 3 feet wide and feature an entirely separate bed which can fold into a double bed in the middle suites for couples. For those wishing to engage in a tete a tete with a visitor, each suite has another seat. An ultra-luxe touch is the custom designed duvets for the fold out bed from the House of Givenchy. The Gilded Age is alive and well in Singapore Suites.
After departing the decadent (almost an understatement) Suites , we made our way back into the circus: the 3 lower deck economy cabins. In-flight notables emerged among us. At the top of the "A List" was Chief A380 Captain Robert Tang. He appeared almost shocked when he was mobbed for photographs and autographs. One woman jokingly asked who was flying the plane to which he jokingly responded as he gestured to his cell phone "which way do you want to go?" I have worked with many celebrities over the years in my day job of producing television shows and have become jaded by celebrities over the years, but I was admittedly star-struck by Captain Tang. The Commander graciously agreed to sign my "Airways Magazine" A380 issue and my A380 book. I can guarantee these cherished collectibles will never see the light of E-Bay. The swarm of adulation almost become too much for this apparently modest man as he departed economy class and imitating Arnold Schwarzenegger said "I'll be back!"
Others worth noting included Thomas Lee, who had flown the first Boeing 747 commercial flight and whose company designed the lavatory systems, and his lovely wife Sally who was the first president of the first Southwest Airlines flight attendant class. They turned heads with a plaque of 2 first commercial flight certificates: The 747 and Airbus A380. His father had surprised him with the 1970 trip and now he was doing the same for his wife and daughter. Sylvain Pascaud of LCL Productions who had spent 5 years documenting the building of the A380 in their excellent film for Discovery and his crew were busily filming their very last segments. CNN's Richard Quest held a simulated auction as he queried the cost passengers paid for their tickets. Two passengers took orders for their very stylish custom made Airbus A380 First Flight t-shirts. An entire family from Australia traveled together; Their 2 sons had designed custom shirts as well which attracted much envy. An engineer from San Francisco celebrated his birthday with "Happy Birthday" sung by the crew and dry ice replacing candles. A travel agent from Perth, Australia dazzled us with her stories of flying Singapore's key inaugurals such as Sydney to Newark. Australian celebrity chef Matt Moran and his Singapore counterpart Sam Leong who designed the in-flight meals were aboard in their chef's uniform personally making certain the cuisine would be top notch.
Many wondered aloud how Singapore could outdo their already extraordinarily high in-flight service levels. We would not be disappointed. So what kind of meal befits an occasion such as this? In economy, we were offered business class quality meals and wine. I dined on the delicious starter of Drunken Chicken, the main course of Main-Baked fillet of Chilean Bass with Fish Noodles followed by Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Oscar chose the Cos Salad with Greek Feta and Seared Birth Tenderloin. The Sommelier's selection included a white Weinhauss Ress' Rheingau Riesling Kabinett 2005 and a red Elderton Barossa Valley Shiraz 2004 Australia. Our appetizing meals were served with aplomb by the wonderful Singapore cabin staff who just seemed pleased that people were in their seats, so they could perform their service.
The tap was never turned off on Singapore's boundless generosity. We were given framed and laminated certificates, signed by CEO Seng and Chief Captain Tang marking the occasion. The gift bags were bulging with a limited edition A380 model, Mont Blanc pens, and other wonderful mementos.
A little over 6 hours into the flight over central New South Wales Australia, the spoilers on the massive wing engaged indicating our initial descent. Captain Tang came on to the PA with yet another surprise: We would perform a low flyover Sydney Harbor! The cabin erupted into a cacophony of shouts and applause. Unfortunately, the low cloud deck decided otherwise and it was scrubbed. Tang himself was disappointed. Unusually, the cabin crew began the 2nd snack service during the descent. They would not be deterred to please us even as the crowd blocking the aisles rendered their jobs difficult!
At 5:15pm, Tang pulled the throttles back to 138 knots (slower than a 747's landing speed) and the New King Of The Skies kissed the runway at Syndey Airport. Once again there was a volley of applause. Emotion hit a crescendo. Had the seatbelt sign not been illuminated, there would've been a standing ovation. During the roll with thrust reversers deployed, we noticed the airport had ground to a halt with cheering crowds of spectators and TV news cameras on the ground and in the air from news helicopters. We blocked into the gate 1 minute early at 5:24PM, 7 hours and 6 minutes after departing Singapore. No one really wanted to disembark the Jumbo. This was fortunate as it took Sydney Airport ground staff a few minutes to position the new A380 compatible jetways. Oscar and I were last off after a special cockpit visit courtesy Captain Tang. All of us departing pioneers were greeted with the requisite press and handed copies of the Sydney Morning Herald with a front page headline blaring "Jumbo Lands In Sydney!" We all became instant celebrities if just for a moment.
The moment of truth arrived for A380 deriders when it came time to collect the baggage. I am sure Singapore employed extra staff in the operation but everyone had their luggage within 30 minutes, with most collecting it earlier. We heaved our bags of Singapore swag to leave the airport with the backdrop of another quartet serenading us. This time in baggage claim!
When we arrived at our hotel, we saw the A380 landing and worldwide coverage splashed across the world's media, the extent of which even surprised us. As a capper for this remarkable day, Timothy Spahr invited everyone to a great A380 After Party where he decapitated the dethroned King of the Skies, a Boeing 747 scale model with a hacksaw. We had gone from the sublime to the surreal, that much is certain.
Sitting on an A340-500 18 hour flight to Newark from Singapore, reminiscing about one magical moment after another, it hit me why this was such a beautiful, profound occasion. In an era of a litany of bad news, worries for the future, and turmoil, it was truly uplifting to see what mankind could accomplish. I was too young to see man walk on the Moon for the first time, but I imagine on a certain level, this was what it was like the world came together and celebrated a truly historic occasion, one unlikely to be repeated in my lifetime, if only for a day.