NEW YORK // Rarely has an airport departure lounge been so charged with excitement. On Friday morning at Gate 25 of Dubai International Airport, there was a palpable buzz in the air as almost 500 passengers waited to board Emirates flight EK3801. The destination was New York's JFK airport and the passengers were excited because they were about to embark on a small piece of aviation history: the maiden voyage of Emirates' headline-grabbing super-jumbo - the first of 58 ordered by the company - and the first commercial flight of the Airbus A380 into the Americas.
At 10.15am, after receiving certificates to record that they were a part of this ground-breaking flight, the eager passengers spilled through the departure gates to get their first glimpse of the gigantic twin-deck A380, the world's largest commercial aircraft. Most of the 489 passengers paused in the tunnel to take photographs of the imposing jet. Many already had an idea what to expect on board, having read the local and international media reports that followed last week's handover ceremony at the Airbus factory in Hamburg, when Emirates took possession of its new flying machine. Now was their chance to find out if the talk of shower spas, business-class seats with mini-bars and noticeably less engine noise was true.
The aircraft's huge passenger capacity is divided into three sections. The sprawling lower deck has 399 economy seats and more legroom than is standard on other aircraft. "There's definitely a little bit more space than you would normally find in economy," said Jerry Holmes, 48. "I think the seats are a little more comfortable, but that could be my imagination, I'm not sure. I think the plane's great, and it makes sense to have more people on a flight for environmental reasons, apart from anything."
Upstairs is home to business class, which consists of 76 fully reclining seats, complete with a massage facility, personal (non-alcoholic) minibar and a 17-inch screen offering a choice of films, television shows, CDs and radio stations. Business class also has a lounge/bar area offering drinks and snacks. Business-class passengers said the experience compared favourably with other planes they had travelled on. Mark Strathdee, a facilities manager with the Thrifty car rental company, said: "I flew in to Dubai yesterday by Virgin business class and I have to say this is far better. Each flight is only as good as its crew and I've found that nothing is too much trouble for the staff.
"The seating and the amount of space you get is fabulous and the plane is incredibly quiet: that's the main thing I've noticed, the lack of noise from the engines is incredible. I'm very impressed and I would definitely come back on the A380 again." Harry Moraes, the chairman of a company in the oil sector, agreed: "It's a wonderful aircraft, spacious, with a very good seating configuration. The standard of in-flight service from the cabin staff has been very good."
Impressive as business class aboard the A380 is, the real luxury lies in the 14 first-class suites, also located on the upper deck. Passengers in this section have access to two spa showers, each with an attendant to hand out lotions and fragrances. Friday's historic flight took 13 hours and 10 minutes and a slightly rough landing at JFK was marked by a round of applause from passengers. Tomorrow, the aircraft will be on show at San Francisco International Airport before heading to the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
With Friday's flight, Emirates became the second commercial airline to fly the A380. The first was Singapore Airlines, which operates a fleet of five super-jumbos. Emirates expects its first 15 A380s to be delivered by April 2010, although Airbus has faced setbacks in production that may force it to delay delivery to some customers by several months. The aircraft are expected to be introduced on popular routes to Australia, India and, in the future, the west coast of the United States.