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Big new Airbus soars over India's congestion

india Updated: May 21, 2007 19:49 IST
YP Rajesh
YP Rajesh
Reuters
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Does size matter? It's a question that haunted me as I walked towards the world's largest passenger plane with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.

The Airbus A380, developed at a cost of $10 billion, has been plagued by production delays.

Its entry into commercial service is already two years overdue, but India is the world's fastest growing aviation market and the European-built plane was in New Delhi last week on the first stop of a world tour.

Kingfisher Airlines is the only Indian carrier to have ordered the A380 and it organized a demonstration flight on the 525-seat double-decker for a few hundred people.

Everyone from the pilots and the cabin crew to the marketing managers, travel agents and even the security guards seemed to use the same one word to describe the plane: huge.

It certainly has the vital statistics to support that description: maximum take-off weight of 560 tonnes, a take-off thrust equivalent to the power of about 2,500 cars, and a wing span of almost 80 meters (260 feet).

At first sight from the front, the size hardly registers. But it begins to hit you as you walk to the plane's side, with its height and enormous wings.

Inside, it seems like Airbus has taken two planes and put them one on top of another to create a twin-deck giant.

The seats in economy class are comfortably wide, so is the leg space, as are the aisles. The overhead luggage bins are deep. You can even almost stretch your arms in the toilets.

The trepidation kicked in as the aircraft began to move slowly onto the runway for the 100-minute flight from New Delhi to Mumbai.

GENTLE GIANT

We are told that the A380 does not require as long a runway as a Boeing 747, which is a relief since Indian airports are known for anything but their size.

But the wings need more shoulder space.

To accommodate them, airport authorities in Delhi had to chop down grass on either side of the runway and clear stones and pebbles that could have got sucked into the engines.

The engines whine and the plane picks up speed, and before we know it the wheels are up and hoots and clapping fill the cabin.

Captain Ed Strongman, one of the two pilots, later told me in the cockpit that the flight crew used only 75 percent of thrust to get plane airborne.

In the air, the cabin is so quiet the humming of the air-conditioning in our office seems louder. Early into the flight, we experience some turbulence and the A380 wobbles gently like a cradle or a giant vessel skimming a rough wave.

Vijay Mallya, India's beer baron and chairman of Kingfisher -- named after the popular brand of beer he makes -- flew the A380 simulator in Britain and called it "mind-blowing".

Kingfisher has ordered five of the planes, with an option on five more.

"It just floats in the sky. It's outstanding," said Mallya, who is licensed to fly a Boeing 727.

As we land in Mumbai with not so much as a rattle, it looks like everyone working in the airport has gathered on every inch of space available to watch the landing.

These days, India's main airports are in the news for all the wrong reasons, choked with new private airlines and struggling to cope with booming passenger and freight traffic.

Modernization plans have yet to be implemented, a fate common in many areas of India's infrastructure.

Five days after my ride, a report in India Today magazine gave a harrowing account of what it called the country's "aviation mess".

"Air traffic is growing but infrastructure is crawling, rendering flying in India a nightmare," the weekly said. "In India, air travel is losing its USP (unique selling proposition)saving time."

That reality caught up with me later on the day of my one-way ride on the Airbus after a few hours in Mumbai.

The narrow roads back to the airport were so clogged with traffic that I missed my flight home.

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