The world's largest jetliner made aviation history Thursday, completing its first commercial flight from Singapore to Sydney with 455 passengers, some of them ensconced in luxury suites and double beds.
The Airbus superjumbo lifted off safely from Singapore's Changi Airport and landed about seven hours later in Sydney. Also on board Flight SQ380 were a crew of about 30, including four pilots.
Flight attendants handed out champagne and certificates to passengers, some of whom paid tens of thousands of dollars in an online auction for the seats.
"I have never been in anything like this in the air before in my life," said Australian Tony Elwood, reclining with his wife, Julie, on the double bed in their private first-class suite.
"It is going to make everything else after this simply awful," he said, sipping Dom Perignon rose after a lunch of marinated lobster and double boiled chicken soup. He paid $50,000 for the two places.
The double-decker A380 ends the nearly 37-year reign of the Boeing 747 jumbojet as the world's most spacious passenger plane. It European manufacturer, Airbus SAS, also claims that the A380 is the most fuel efficient and quietest passenger jet ever built.
Thomas Lee, who was also on the Boeing 747's first commercial flight from New York to London in 1970, described the latest experience as "spectacular ... fantastic ... incredible."
"It was a festive atmosphere, I can tell you. Everybody was excited. People were up out of their seats in the aisle. It was quite difficult for the cabin crew to do their job ... not like a normal flight I can assure you," he said.
The A380 was delivered to Singapore Airlines on Oct. 15, nearly two years behind schedule after billions of dollars in cost overruns for Airbus. Still, the wait was worth it, says Singapore Airlines, which got the exclusivity of being the plane's sole operator for 10 months.
"This is indeed a new milestone in the timeline of aviation," said Chew Choon Seng, chief executive of Singapore Airlines, or SIA, in a speech before the departure.
The Boeing 747 jumbo jet generally carries about 400 passengers. The A380 - as tall as a seven-story building with each wing big enough to hold 70 cars - is capable of carrying 853 passengers in an all-economy class configuration.
However, Singapore Airlines opted for 471 seats in three classes - 12 Singapore Airlines Suites, 60 business class and 399 economy class.
Each suite, enclosed by sliding doors, is fitted with a leather upholstered seat, a table, a 23-inch flat screen TV, laptop connections and a range of office software. A separate bed folds up into the wall. Two of the suites can be joined to provide double beds, one of which the Elwoods occupied.
On the upper deck, business class seats can turn into wide flat beds, while the economy class seats on both decks have more leg and knee room, the carrier says. Business class passengers also have a bar area.
Francis Wu, a student from San Francisco who turned 22 on the flight, was updating his journal on the in-flight computer system when airline crew surprised him with a white chocolate cake and a song.
SIA auctioned most of the seats on the inaugural flight on eBay, raising $1.26 million for charity. The highest bidder was Briton Julian Hayward who bought two suite seats for $100,380. He was the first passenger to board.
SIA has ordered a total of 19 A380s, hoping to benefit from a recent boom in air travel that has seen global air traffic growing 5 to 10 percent a year.
Dubai-based Emirates, Airbus' largest A380 customer with 55 on order, will take its first delivery in August 2008.
Not all analysts are convinced that the plane, which has a list price of $320 million, will be a success.
"I see there's some demand for the A380, but it's an expensive way to address a small market," said Standard & Poor's Equity Research analyst Shukor Yusof.
Shukor said the market was set to be dominated by mid-sized, long haul two-engine aircraft such as the rival Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which offers greater fuel efficiency than four-engine jets of the same size.
He pointed out that orders for the 787 have exceeded 700. The A380 has received 165 orders to date.
Shukor noted that Singapore Airlines renews its fleet frequently to maintain an average age of about six years. Once the planes are older than six years, Singapore Airlines might have trouble selling them, he said.
"What would happen if the plane didn't meet their expectations, say, in a year? Would SIA be tempted to sell it? What is the secondary value of the plane? It has not been commercially tested yet," Shukor said.