Tried & Tested

Qantas A380 business class

24 Sep 2008

BACKGROUND: Qantas took delivery of its first Airbus A380 on September 19 (see online news September 22), and will initially put the aircraft into service on the Melbourne-LA route in October. We will, however, see the superjumbo on the London-Singapore route (where it will go head to head with SIA’s A380 service) from January 16 next year. As this was the delivery flight (from Airbus’s delivery centre in Toulouse to Singapore’s Changi airport, then on to Sydney), boarding, onboard service and arrival were not subject to normal conditions, so this review will focus mainly on the seating product.

THE SEAT: Qantas has placed its Business Class product on the upper deck of the A380, with Premium Economy behind it (SIA opted for business class followed by an Economy cabin on the upper deck, while Emirates chose to locate First and Business upstairs). Seats are configured 2-2-2, as opposed to 1-2-1 on both SIA’s and Emirates’ superjumbos. The seat was created by Australian designer Marc Newson, with the outer casing consisting of a stylish curved fixed shell with dark grey mesh design and light red upholstery.

The seat converts electronically to an 80-inch fully-flat bed, which makes it the longest Business Class bed available on an A380 aircraft (SIA’s bed is 76 inches across the diagonal, and Emirates’ is either 70 or 79 inches depending on which seat you sit in). The product is effectively an evolution of the Qantas Skybed, which offers a 69-inch angled lie-flat bed. There are several massage functions, adjustable lumbar support and headrest, and a recall feature so that you can save your favourite reclining position. The seat also has plenty of storage options including a stretchable pouch on the back of the seat in front (large enough to take a laptop), shoe storage, two smaller cubby holes and further storage bins for those by the windows.

The 12.1-inch TV screen pops out from the armrest (on the front of which is the power socket, plus USB and wired internet ports). The table also slides from the arm and folds out. It’s not as sturdy or as large as SIA’s version in its A380 business class cabin, but it does the job. Other features include a swivel reading light, coat hook, socket for noise-cancelling headphones, and a privacy divider, which moves up and down electronically.

The onboard lounge Qantas has openly admitted that is hasn’t gone for the “wow” factor that Emirates (with its onboard showers) and SIA (with its First Class double beds) have opted for, but it has allowed itself one indulgence in the form of a lounge at the front of the Business Class section. This is positioned to the right, next to the main stairs, and consists of a five-seater red sofa, a magazine rack and a flat-screen TV (large by airline terms, and with a connection point for laptops). There is also a mysterious-looking black box in one corner, which designer Marc Newson says will contain a “3D hologram”, once it has been loaded into the system. It will be interesting to see how this area will be managed in the future – Qantas says that only five people will be allowed in it at any one time, and it’s not clear if the space can be booked in advance for meetings.

THE IFE: As we’ve come to expect with new planes these days, the in-flight entertainment choice is excellent, with hundreds of movies, TV programmes, music albums, radio stations, language courses and Lonely Planet guides – so you would be hard pushed not to find something to pass the time. Worth mentioning is the touchscreen control, which I found so easy and intuitive to use that I didn’t even bother to remove the wired handheld option from its holder.

Qantas also offers email capability (from users’ existing web-based email accounts) on board its A380 aircraft, through provider OnAir. There is wired and wireless access, and passengers can log in to receive their latest emails from accounts such as Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL. Note that you are not actually accessing the websites themselves (Qantas says it will have full internet access on board next year), the system simply calls up the latest unopened emails in your account and displays them on its own screen. You cannot access address books or old emails, and work accounts accessed through a VPN (virtual private network) will also not work.

Passengers pay a fixed logon fee of US$6 for the duration of the flight, plus a charge per email depending on what is being sent/received. To give you some idea, I sent a 1KB text-only email (about the length of an SMS) and this cost nothing, while a message containing a 48KB image and sent to two people cost 46 cents. There is also the option to use instant-messaging accounts.

WHERE TO SIT: There are effectively three sections of Business Class seating on the upper deck of the Qantas A380. Working from the back (where Business Class starts after the carrier’s Premium Economy product), the first section consists of two rows of 2-2-2.  Just past these seats (and divided by a partition wall but no curtains) is the main Business Class cabin, with seven rows of 2-2-2 seating. These are followed by the galley area, self-service bar, and four toilets, then there is another three rows of 2-2-2 (making 72 seats in total, compared with 60 on SIA and 76 on Emirates), and past these is the main staircase down to the lower deck and the lounge area to the right-hand side.

So which is the best seat? As it is 2-2-2 throughout, the window seats do not have direct aisle access, so if this is important to you then avoid these. They do, however, have the storage bins under the windows which are useful if you’ve got a fair bit of hand luggage. The first block of two rows has a private feel to it, and the window seating on the front of these two rows enjoy extra legroom because they are located by the emergency exit. In the main cabin, I would avoid the front couple of rows, due to the coming and going of passengers and crew from the galley and toilets.

As for the front cabin, it really depends how you intend to spend the flight – if easy access to the lounge is important to you, then these are a good bet, otherwise, I would probably avoid them as you’ll potentially be stuck between the two noisiest areas of the upper deck. I was sat in seat 22A, on the left-hand side at the back of the main section. On reflection, this was not a bad place to be, as it’s away from the noise, has access to storage bins, and personally I didn’t mind stepping over the person next to me every now and then.

THE FLIGHT:
The nature of the flight meant we did not receive normal service in terms of in-flight food, but I was able to get an idea of how it will work on a scheduled flight. Meals have been created by renowned Australian chef Neil Perry, owner of the Rockpool restaurant in Sydney. The sort of dishes passengers can expect on board include herb-crusted turbot with wilted spinach and peperonata and slow-roasted Charolois beef rib with red wine jus, potato purée and asparagus. There will also be a selection of dishes which can be ordered at any time, including freshly made baguettes and toasted panini. There is also a self-service bar area with snacks and soft/alcoholic beverages.

This was a night flight (departing around midnight), so I took the opportunity to try out the bed. It converts electronically without the need to get up, and at 80 inches it’s long enough for a six-footer like myself to properly stretch out. It felt comfortable, and I was able to get a few hours sleep, despite the hubbub that a delivery flight brings. A pillow, blanket and pyjamas are all provided, as is a male/female amenity kit.

VERDICT: Smart, modern and stylish – Qantas has taken its tried-and-tested Skybed offering and evolved it into a competitive fully-flat product. Where SIA’s seat has the width, Qantas has gone for length, and it will be interesting to see them go head to head on the London-Singapore route from next year.

CONTACT: qantas.com.au.

Mark Caswell

Seat Plan for Qantas’ A380

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