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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 March 2008, 18:26 GMT
Roomy with a view
By Nick Higham
BBC News

View out window of Airbus A380

Terminal 3 at Singapore's Changi Airport is brand new, opened in January.

It's huge: so big, frankly, it makes the new Terminal 5 at London's Heathrow look cramped.

But it's not the architecture that's causing a stir at Gate B5: it's the huge double-decker plane parked outside, one of Singapore Airlines' first three Airbus A380s, wingspan almost equalling the length of a football pitch, tail as tall as an eight-storey building.

Last October, Singapore Airlines was the first airline to fly an A380 commercially, from Singapore to Sydney. Today it's inaugurating a daily service to Heathrow.

There's a party atmosphere at the gate: speeches, a free breakfast and the chance to have your photograph taken with one of Singapore Airlines' impossibly pretty, impossibly charming air hostesses, known as "the Singapore Girls".

Among the passengers are 18 aviation enthusiasts in specially-printed T-shirts, who've made it their mission to take as many "first flights" as they can.

One, Gino Bertuccio from Florida, the owner of a cosmetics firm, has paid $9,000 for one of the 12 first-class "suites" on board - little cubicles with sliding doors which give the occupant greater privacy. Why?

Singapore Airlines hostesses
Other carriers are to follow Singapore Airlines using the A380

"I don't have family, I don't have kids, I'm single. All the money I earn, I spend it on this luxury hobby," he says.

Another enthusiast is Mark Barden, a nurse from Southampton. He's turning round when we land at Heathrow and flying straight back to Singapore so he can claim to have been on both legs of this inaugural trip.

With a 747 flight to get him to Singapore in the first place, and another A380 to get him home again, the double round-trip has cost him 1,500.

"I love aviation," he says. He funds his hobby by dealing in aviation paraphernalia on eBay.

Quiet and roomy

We take off at 0920 Singapore time - 0120 London time. First impressions: it's much quieter than a conventional jumbo, and much roomier.

In economy the seats are two inches wider and there's two inches more legroom than on a Singapore Airlines 747. In business class the seat's wide enough, without exaggeration, to fit two people side by side. (The BBC paid for economy seats - Singapore Airlines kindly upgraded us.)

Captain Gerard Yeap
Captain Gerard Yeap spoke well of the A380's handling
An hour and a half into the 13-hour flight and we're somewhere over the Nicobar Islands, off the coast of Thailand. I ask the pilot, Captain Gerard Yeap, what the A380 is like to fly.

On take-off today we weighed 529 tonnes, and rumbling down the runway the plane certainly felt enormous. Reassuringly he tells me that for a plane of its size it handles remarkably well.

Back in the economy seats the passengers seem happy too. There's praise for the plane's spaciousness - one woman is letting her one-year old crawl around near the back of the lower deck: there's plenty of room and he's in no-one's way.

A retired couple on the way back to Kent from one of their regular holidays in New Zealand were delighted to discover they'd be on this first flight - even more pleased to find how comfortable it is.

Green claims

We're served breakfast - and all the passengers are handed a certificate signed by Capt Yeap, just to prove we really were on the flight.

I try taking a nap, folding down my seat to make a flat bed, and discover I can stretch out to my full six feet.

Two hours later it's back to work. By now we've crossed India and the Punjab, and we're pressing on over Pakistan towards Afghanistan.

Airbus A380 above the London Eye
Heathrow has seen renovations to handle the double-decker jet
I do a succession of interviews on the plane's satellite phone with BBC TV and radio outlets, and chat to one of the other journalists travelling on the flight.

Dominic O'Connell is deputy business editor of the Sunday Times, and has written at length about the A380's manufacturer, Airbus.

The A380 is much quieter than a jumbo. With fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions 20% lower, it's also said to be greener. So I ask Dominic if those green claims stack up.

Not necessarily, he says: though it uses less fuel per passenger it's flying many more of them.

He thinks the big increases in fuel efficiency will come when Airbus produces a "stretched" version of the plane, capable of holding an extra 50 or 100 passengers.

In fact, the existing plane could be much more fuel efficient if airlines were to fill it to capacity - more than 850 economy seats.

They don't do that because they make more money selling tickets for roomy business class. Singapore Airways charges 687 for an economy return from London to Singapore, 3,164 for a business class return.

There are 471 seats on the plane: 12 "suites", 60 business class and 399 economy.

Touch down

Lunch is served over the Caspian Sea, eight hours and rather more than half-way into the trip.

By now the novelty is starting to wear off: roomier it may be, but when all's said and done the A380 is still a flying cigar tube, albeit a fat one.

But at least we're not as dehydrated as people usually get on long-haul flights, apparently because the cabin pressure is higher.

Time for another nap, and then some more interviews, as the plane powers on over Ukraine with just two and half hours still to go.
BBC News's Nick Higham on board the Airbus A380
BBC News's Nick Higham had just one complaint
Stephen Forshaw, of Singapore Airlines, tells me I'm wrong to question the A380's green credentials.

The Boeing 747 is 40-year-old technology, he tells me; the A380 with its lighter, carbon composite body and its modern Rolls-Royce engines, can't help but be more fuel-efficient.

And then it's wheels down as we approach Heathrow, where they've had to build a new pier at Terminal 3 especially to take this giant aircraft.

With no spare landing slots at one of the world's busiest airports, bigger planes like this represent one of the few opportunities for Heathrow to increase the number of passengers it handles without building another runway.

We touch down at 1450 GMT - after 13 hours and 30 minutes, and one of the busiest but also most enjoyable long-haul flights I've ever taken.

Just one complaint: you'd have thought with all that extra space they could have made the loos bigger.

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