Flight trials: up close with the next generation of aeroplanes

Senior reporter

The Engineer headed to Heathrow among much patriotic excitement to greet British Airways’ first A380 and compare it to the newly arrived Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Passenger aircraft all tend to look the same to me. I’m far more likely to notice the company logo on a plane than its wingspan or engine design. But there’s something about standing underneath a vehicle the size of the Airbus A380 that’s undeniably impressive. It’s more like an elegant flying cruise ship than a typical aeroplane.

Yesterday, British Airways received its first A380, just a week after accepting its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Although the two planes aren’t competitor models – the A380 has twice as many seats as the 787 – their development has overshadowed almost everything else in the world of commercial passenger aircraft in the last few years, with both companies claiming to have made groundbreaking technological advances and set new standards in fuel efficiency.

So when The Engineer was invited to yesterday’s grand arrival of the A380 – and promised both craft would be on display – it was hard to decline an opportunity to see what all the fuss and excitement has been about and I headed out to Heathrow to see the two planes side by side.

Watching the A380 arrive was a bit like waiting to see the Queen get off a plane, such were the cheers and Union flag waving by an army of BA staff. But stopping to reflect on this slightly odd display of patriotism for a commercial airliner, I was struck that this was the closest thing to a British passenger plane you could get.

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British Airways’ first A380 touched down at Heathrow yesterday.

Obviously, the vehicle was decked out in red, white and blue and emblazoned with a large “British Airways” logo. But more importantly, 40 per cent of the craft – including the wings and Rolls-Royce engines – was made in the UK and over 400 British suppliers were involved in construction, a process that supported 10,000 Airbus jobs and many more in the supply chain.

After the flag-wavers had cheered the Airbus and British Airways bigwigs who emerged from the plane and made their way down the steps, I was given an opportunity to see inside the vehicle. Again, I’m usually of the mindset that if you’ve seen one aeroplane interior you’ve seen them all (although I once flew on an Air India plane that appeared to have orange patterned wallpaper).

But the inside of the A380 was by far the most spacious, airy and light aircraft cabin I’ve been in. Of course, this was particularly true of first and business class sections but even economy class felt far more pleasant than most (although after 12 hours on a flight to LA in there I might regain my usual dislike of air travel).

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The interior of the A380 feels remarkably spacious and airy.

Just around the corner was parked BA’s first Dreamliner. The much smaller plane appeared to the untrained eye as a much more conventional craft, although the interior was almost as impressive as that of the A380. However, the conventional BA paint job belies what in some ways is a more technically advanced piece of engineering.

To get a better idea of the differences between the craft, I spoke to BA’s managing director of operations and former head of engineering, Gary Copeland. ‘The 787 uses new or novel construction techniques,’ he said. ‘It’s mostly composites, it has very, very different systems architecture, very little hydraulics, virtually no pneumatics, very much an electric aircraft, all optimised for fuel burn and, for that matter, reliability.’

He added that although the A380 was somewhat less technologically advanced, Airbus had still developed novel construction techniques and had had to create the system design and architecture to cope with the aircraft’s huge size.

‘But I think they share characteristics as well,’ he said. ‘Both aircraft come with some very sophisticated data tools to manage reliability, performance and functionality. They are essentially flying hubs in our information network.’

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The Dreamliner is much smaller than the A380 but features more unusual technological innovations.

One question remains, however. Which is the most fuel-efficient craft? Both claim to offer some of the best fuel economy standards for passenger aircraft available, but so far neither Airbus nor Boeing have responded to The Engineer’s requests for specific details. Other reports have put the A380 at 2.9 litres per passenger per 100 kilometres and the 787 at 2.4 litres per passenger per 100 kilometres.

British Airways says the A380 is 16 per cent more fuel efficient than the Boeing 747-400 it will replace, and that the Dreamliner burns 20 per cent less fuel per seat than its current equivalent, the 767.

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The double-decker A380 is designed for higher-volume long-haul flights than the 787.

But of course, it’s worth remembering that these two planes are designed for different purposes (the A380 for high-volume, long-haul flights and the 787 for lower-volume flights and new routes) and so direct comparisons aren’t always helpful.

Have they been worth the wait, the fuss and the expense? From a passenger point of view I can definitely see both craft offering an upgrade in terms of flight experience. Whether they meet the expectations of the airlines, we’ll have to wait and see (and hope there aren’t any more ‘teething problems’ like batteries catching fire).