For the better part of a year, Airbus has been referring to the executive version of its A380 as the Flying Palace, so it seemed appropriate that the first customer should be royalty–Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz Alsaud.
The prince, who nurtures a high-profile public image, arrived in style at the Dubai Airshow in November to sign the contract, rolling up in his Boeing 747-400, flags flying from the cockpit, onto a ramp spot alongside an A380 in Singapore Airlines colors.
He might have the first executive A380, but it won’t be parked in front of the palace tomorrow, or next year. In fact, said an Airbus source, his airplane will not be delivered to the completion center until 2010. And taking into consideration the scope of the interior completion project, delivery of the finished airplane is unlikely before 2012.
But when it does arrive, there will be nothing like it on or above the face of the earth. With a price tag in the neighborhood of $310 million (for the green airplane) and completion estimated to be at least another $150 million, the Flying Palace will be the most expensive business jet ever, nudging half a billion dollars.
Amid the shaking of heads at the price tag, more than a few observers at the contract-signing ceremony in Dubai wondered what one individual–even one worth an estimated $20 billion–could want with a private airplane that size.
First of all, Prince Alwaleed has never been known for doing anything in a small way. He is quoted by business and finance Web site Woopidoo as having said, “If I’m going to do something, I do it spectacularly or I don’t do it at all.” And it doesn’t get much more spectacular than buying an airplane that will carry you, as well as a good part of the student body of the small California college from which you graduated, to just about any destination in the world, nonstop.
According to Airbus, the process of designing the two-deck, 5,930-sq-ft cabin is still some time away, but there is already no lack of speculation on the part of completion centers about possible amenities, from a casino to a swimming pool. “You can forget about the swimming pool,” said an Airbus executive with a chuckle. “That’s nothing more than a little media hyperbole…can’t happen and won’t happen.”
On the other hand, a majlis, or traditional Arabic “place of sitting” where guests can gather in a social setting, is almost certain to be a design element. And there will be multiple suites with en-suite private lavatories and showers. There might also be a gaming room, a multi-tiered movie theater and a prayer room.
An aircraft manufacturing executive familiar with the Middle East pointed out that private jet owners in that part of the world typically travel with a “sizeable” extended family and entourage. This in itself might require a cabin configuration that eats up space with such necessities as separate male and female accommodations.
The cabin would likely be designed to carry approximately 100 passengers, considerably fewer than the 800 or so it can accommodate in airline configuration.
Of a practical nature regarding completion work is a proposal for an Air Force One-style stairway that would allow passengers to enter and exit the airplane through the baggage bay, eliminating the need for a jetway or portable aircraft stair.
As for which independent completion center will win the hefty cabin-outfitting contract, most bets seem to be on Lufthansa Technik or Jet Aviation. Lufthansa has already finished enlarging a hangar at its Hamburg, Germany facility to accommodate an A380, and Jet Aviation is building a new hangar in Basel that will house it.
While the competition is too close to call at this point, Lufthansa now appears to have an edge; both companies have considerable experience with outfitting widebody
bizliners, but Lufthansa Technik’s sister company, Lufthansa German Airlines, has already ordered 15 A380s and Lufthansa Technik has been selected to provide A380 maintenance worldwide.
Even without the optional cabin amenities, Airbus claims the big, four-engine aircraft offers some decided advantages, including a two-deck cabin that offers configuration possibilities not available in smaller, single-aisle bizliners and the potential for greater privacy.
And there is “the safety factor of having four engines.” With four engines, claims the manufacturer, the loss of an engine in flight does not require an immediate diversion to the nearest alternate airport. “This airplane takes you where you want to go, rather than someplace you didn’t want to go.”
Airbus also dismisses claims by some detractors that A380 operations are limited to airports capable of accommodating an airplane with a max takeoff weight north of one million pounds (the Boeing 747-400 weighs in south of 900,000 pounds). Airbus points out that the main landing-gear trucks have four more wheels than the Boeing 747’s, spreading the weight over a greater area.
“Any airport that can accommodate a 747 can accommodate an A380,” said an Airbus representative. He also pointed out that nearly 60 airports worldwide can already accommodate the A380 and by 2010 that number will increase to 70. The turning circle, he said, is no larger than that of any other twin-aisle widebody.
He added that the A380 is 20 percent more efficient than the current crop of widebody aircraft and “it meets ICAO noise reduction requirements by a considerable margin.”
Airbus also claims the A380 has “the quietest cabin in the sky,” based on preliminary data from a test aircraft. The data indicated an average cabin noise level during cruise of about 56.5 dB (SIL), some 5 dB (SIL) less than that of the Boeing 747-400.
The cabin might be quiet, but there is plenty of market noise, and Airbus is forecasting a lucrative market for its Flying Palace. A day after Prince Alwaleed signed on the dotted line, Dubai-based Al Jaber Group signed a “letter of interest” in acquiring two Airbus A380s. Saying the letter was “very preliminary,” Airbus COO John Leahy nevertheless added, “We trust that it could result in a new A380 VIP customer over the next few months.”
Airbus has its eye on a market segment currently filled by about 25 executive versions of the Boeing 747. The company believes most of these will be replaced over the next decade, which suggests a market over the next 10 years for about 30 executive bizliners in the twin-aisle, widebody category. Airbus, said an executive, “expects to win about half of those.”