DUBAI // Potential passengers might think it is a good thing - but the Emirates Airline Airbus A380 fleet is so quiet that pilots are complaining they cannot fall asleep. On long-haul flights it is important the captain and his co-pilot catch the occasional nap so they are refreshed and alert when it is their turn to take the controls. For that purpose there is a crew rest area at the back of the plane.
The problem with the A380, apparently, is that its engines are so quiet that the handful of pilots chosen to fly it are missing the usual soporific background drone that drowns out other distractions. Instead their sleep is being interrupted by flushing lavatories, screaming children and call bells, sounds normally muffled by engine noise. Talks are now under way between Emirates and Airbus, the aeroplane's manufacturer, in the hope that some degree of engine background noise can be introduced.
Doing so poses a logistical challenge to Airbus, which must avoid increasing the weight of the planes too significantly. Capt Ed Davidson, senior vice-president of fleet for Emirates, said the airline had asked the France-based company to find a solution to the problem. Insulating the walls of the rest area, he said, was not an option as it involved adding too much weight to the aircraft. "We're getting a lot of complaints. It's not something we expected," he said. "On our other aircraft, the engines drown out the cabin noise. [On the A380] the pilots sleep with earplugs but the cabin noise goes straight through them."
An Emirates spokesman said: "Many of our crew have flown other aircraft types and for some the quietness of the A380 cabin has taken some adjusting to. "Our A380s started commercial service in August, and feedback from crew is starting to come in. "Some are telling us that cabin sounds appear louder in the A380, and we are naturally concerned that this could potentially disrupt crew rest. We are looking into the matter with the manufacturer to see if we can resolve this with some on-board modifications."
Emirates said the response from passengers about the quietness of the A380 had been "tremendous" and positive. The problems are unique to Emirates' crew as it is the only airline to have placed their rest areas to the back of the plane, rather than immediately behind the cockpit. Singapore Airlines, which flew the first commercial A380 flight from Singapore to Sydney in October last year, did not report any problems, although many airline industry commentators have noted the lack of noise on A380 flights.
The quietness of the A380s is also one of the most commented upon features noted by its passengers on online airline forums. After flying on a A380 test flight from Los Angeles earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times travel writer Jane Engle said: "As it climbed towards an azure sky, I heard an unsettling noise: next to nothing. "The plane was so silent that the whirr of the air conditioning rose above the engines' purr. That's right - purr, not roar."
In a blog produced last year, Randy Tinseth, the vice president of marketing for Airbus' rivals Boeing, reported concerns that the A380 might be too quiet. "My personal experience is that if you can't sleep because you can hear lots of conversations, or other sounds, you're going to be more fatigued when you arrive. "You'd probably agree that the most disturbing background noises are the random ones - talking, coughing, lavatory doors closing.
"How disturbed you are during a flight is a function of the degree to which the random noises rise above the background noise." John Leahy, chief operating officer of Airbus, said in response: "Boeing is clutching at straws. There is no such thing as an aircraft that is too quiet. "If Boeing says that, because they don't have an aircraft that competes, then I think it is frankly embarrassing that they even said that."
Writing in the online French journal Challenges in August, an industry analyst, Patrick Fauconnier, said: "There is with this huge plane a problem that no one could have anticipated - it is so quiet, particularly in the front, that first-class passengers have complained they are not able to have confidential discussions. "The matter is being taken seriously: they are considering introducing background music, like in supermarkets."
Mr Davidson said he was hopeful a resolution could be found with Airbus, adding: "We are expecting to hear back from them by the middle of the month." He said Airbus had "over-delivered" on its promise of noise reduction on the A380s. Airbus did not respond to calls for a comment. Emirates operates two A380s between Dubai and New York, and launched its A380 service between London Heathrow and Dubai this week. A new service between the UAE and Sydney will launch next year, and Emirates expects all 58 of the A380s it has ordered to be delivered by 2013.