Once you’ve flown long haul aboard an Airbus A380, a legacy Boeing 747 feels loud, cramped and just plain out of date, like listening to music on a Discman instead of an iPod. Even in economy class, the A380 is a step up in terms of passenger experience compared to the widebody double-decker it was designed to compete against, though Boeing has since unveiled a new and improved 747, the 747-8I. If you think I’m over-egging it, read on.
My wife and I were raised in Sydney but live in London. Last December, we flew home to spend Christmas with my wife’s family. Though neither of us had flown with about Malaysia Airlines (MAS), we booked our passage on the carrier for several reasons: it was cheaper than our preferred carriers (Singapore Airlines and Emirates); the layover in Kuala Lumpur was relatively short (a couple of hours); it has a five-star SKYTRAX rating; and finally, when we booked our flights in August 2012, we thought we would be flying an A380 all the way.
Malaysia Airlines had originally planned to carry its kangaroo-route passengers aboard A380s all the way from London to Sydney and Melbourne. Unfortunately for us, the carrier axed that plan after it found it couldn’t fill its superjumbos in Australia, due mainly to low-cost competitor AirAsia X vacuuming up the budget end of the market.
It wasn’t just that, however. The long-range, high-volume and fuel-efficient A380 is the perfect aircraft to reach distant, popular destinations such as Sydney, and the big birds have been flocking there, overwhelming the airport’s capacity to accommodate them. A spokeswoman for Sydney’s Kingsford Smith airport recently told the Telegraph, an Australian tabloid, that the airport was “one of the busiest A380 airports in the world”. Yet, despite the airport spending millions in upgrades to deal with the aircraft, MAS had trouble getting its A380s into Sydney.
To accommodate the A380’s vast wingspan, Sydney Airport carried out all the necessary airside works, including widening the shoulders on its runways and taxiways, moving airfield navigation aids and relocating taxiways. It also spent a lot of money reinforcing a major road tunnel running underneath the main runway, in order to take the A380’s weight. However, it built split-level air-bridges at only five of the gates at its International Terminal, suggesting that the airport underestimated how quickly some carriers would adopt the A380, and want to land them in Sydney.
It’s worth noting here that MAS arrived late to the party – the world’s first commercial flight of the A380, by Singapore Airlines, landed at Sydney Airport way back in 2007, and Qantas and Emirates, along with Singapore Airlines, were all operating A380s into Sydney long before Malaysia Airlines came knocking. In contrast, MAS didn’t put an A380 into service until July 2012.
Still, none of this information was of any consolation to my wife and I when we were obliged to switch from an A380 to an aged 747-400 in Kuala Lumpur. Landing in Sydney in the smaller, louder, older plane, after leaving London in the bigger, quieter new one, was just plain deflating. It was like going to a party that starts with a bang – great music, beautiful people, champagne – but ends in a fizzle – plastic lawn furniture and warm beer.
WHO LET THE KIDS IN?
I’d read in Australian Business Traveller (ABT) that Malaysia Airlines was extending the no-children-under-12 policy it implements in its First Class sections to the 70 economy seats on the upper deck of its A380 carrying passengers between London and Kuala Lumpur. That’s good, I thought – what’s worse than a crying infant on a 13-hour flight? Two crying infants, that’s what. Malaysia Airlines, said ABT, had issued a memo instructing agents in Asia to seat families with children under 12 on the lower deck. That policy, I’m afraid to say, wasn’t in effect on either our outbound or inbound flight. Not only were there children under 12 on the upper deck on both our inbound and outbound flights, but I noticed basinet fixtures on the bulkhead.
The ‘no-kids’ policy wasn’t the only reason we selected seats on the upper deck. We also wanted to take advantage of the 2-4-2 layout (it’s 3-4-3 downstairs…see pic below) so that we could sit as a couple with no neighbour. We had to pay a premium for the privilege, of course.
But back to the kids thing – on the Sydney-KL leg of our return flight, aboard the 747-400, we sat near the bulkhead, where both basinets were occupied by crying infants. I plugged in my iPhone earbuds but couldn’t drown out the aircraft noise, let alone the crying, even with Metallica playing at eardrum damaging volume. By contrast, when we switched to the A380 in KL, I found the cabin so quiet that I turned down the volume for fear of disturbing my neighbours. Airbus claims the A380 cabin is fifty per cent quieter than the 747-400, and I believe it.
Malaysia Airlines has fitted its A380s in a typical three-class layout accommodating 494 passengers. Our seats, according to the airline (and I’m trusting their marketing material here – I didn’t have a tape measure), were 18 inches wide, had a 32-inch pitch and reclined six inches.
At first sight, the seats seemed thin to me, for a long-haul flight – almost as thin as the seats I sit in on low-cost hops around Europe. Yet both my wife and I were comfortable all the way to Kuala Lumpur, which just goes to show how effective the new composite materials are. The 6-inch recline was fine – not as good as the lie-flats I imagined the ‘one-per-centers’ lounging in behind the curtain, but comfortable enough.
Speaking of lie-flats, my wife, who is smaller than I am, came close to doing just that in our little two-seat corner of the A380. I sat on the aisle seat, whilst my wife took the window. She found that if she stretched her legs out on the storage box between the window and the seat, and rested her head on my lap, she was as close to lying flat as you can be without actually splashing out for the expensive seats. The downside, of course, was that she had to wake up each time I wanted to move.
One final note on the seat – counter-intuitively, the economy seats on Malaysia Airline’s A380 has two fewer inches of pitch than the economy seats on its older planes. I expect this is going to be the case on all its new fit outs.
… AND WIDE SCREENS
I didn’t properly appreciate the 10.6-inch IFE seat-back touch-screen on the A380 until I was faced with the 6.5-inch non-touch screen aboard the 747-400 on the Sydney leg. For comparison’s sake, 10.6 inches is almost an inch larger than the regular iPad, whereas 6.5 inches is more than an inch smaller than the iPad Mini, with nowhere near the resolution. This might sound tough on the carrier – after all, no one had even heard of the iPad before April 2010, and seat-back screens were considered cutting edge long before then – but still, these are the standards by which consumers now measure inflight entertainment screens.
To put it another way, I was happy to use the IFE system on the A380, but switched to my own PED once aboard the 747. It just goes to show how quickly seat-back screens become obsolete.
Incidentally, the A380 IFE system was equipped with 115VAC PED power supply and USB port – perfect for powering the iPad I was going to use aboard the next leg.
Of course, screen size and resolution quality are moot if the content isn’t great, and I must say that there was little in Malaysian’s December and January selections that I particularly wanted to see. My sister, who lives in Brussels, flew to Sydney with Air France from Paris. We compared notes over Christmas, and the selection aboard Air France sounded better than what Malaysia was offering me.
Having said that, I was impressed by the international range of cinema available aboard Malaysia Airlines, and there were plenty of Asian films I would have watched if reading subtitles wasn’t so much more tedious in the air than it is in an art house cinemas on the ground. When I’m tired and cramped and 40,000 feet in the air, what I want is something easy – an Apatow comedy, say, or the latest Hollywood thriller, or some old Seinfeld re-runs.
WHERE’S THE SATAY?
Let me just say right off the bat that I have a queasy stomach and never eat trolley meals, even long haul, no matter who I’m flying with. So if you want to know what the food tasted like, I’m not your man. Go check the forums (airlinemeals.net is a good one).
What I can tell you is that my wife was looking forward to Malaysia’s signature satay dish that was heavily marketed in its inflight magazine, Going Places, and that she was very disappointed when she found out it was available to first and business-class passengers only. So if you want to try MAS’s famous satay, don’t travel at the back of the plane. We were offered plenty of salted peanuts, which are great but no substitute, as well as a snack pack – cheddar, organic crackers, a chocolate bar – which, since it didn’t come out of a trolley, I ate it.
For those of you wondering how I made it from London to Sydney without eating, here’s my trick: there’s a delicious Japanese place at Kuala Lumpur Airport called Fukuya, where I splash out on soba noodles and tempura.
Back on the plane, when the breakfast trolley came round, I declined the omelette and Malaysian cooked breakfast and went for the continental tray. This included a yoghurt, fruit salad and muesli bar, all of which I ate.
The cabin crew were constantly coming round with trays of water, apple juice and orange juice. This was good, because if you’re going to spend a total of 20 hours airborne, you’re going to get dehydrated, especially after they confiscate your water at airport security. Apparently the air in the A380 cabin is changed every three minutes, and the temperature can be set anywhere between 18 and 30 degrees. If that’s the case, then I ask the airlines (and not just MAS) to turn it up a notch. My wife especially felt the cold, and kept asking for more blankets, which the cabin crew couldn’t provide. My sister said she froze aboard Air France’s A380 flight to Singapore, though she did manage to extract four blankets from of the crew.
HELLO, MR GILLY
Malaysian, like most of the Asian and all of the Middle Eastern carriers that I’ve experienced, are known for terrific service, and the service on the A380 was no exception. Here’s one example – during meals, the cabin crew made the effort to write down each passenger’s name. When you hear yourself addressed by name (“Would you like the omelette, the Malaysian breakfast or the Continental breakfast, Mr Gilly?”), you can’t help but appreciate it. It’s a small effort – I saw the flight attendant’s passenger manifest on her trolley – but it leaves a lasting impression on the customer.
More generally, the cabin crew aboard Malaysia Airlines came across as highly capable, efficient, eager to help and courteous. It’s surprising how many airlines – particularly outside of Asia and the Middle East (I’m being careful not to name names here) – have cabin crew that are abrupt, to say the least.
There’s a story going around that Airbus broke with its designation system when it named the A380, and inserted the “8” in there first because the numeral evokes a double decker, and second because it’s an auspicious number in many of the Asian countries where Airbus wants to sell the plane. If this sounds whimsical, consider the following – the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur each have 88 floors; Air Canada’s Toronto to Shanghai flight number is AC88; KLM’s Amsterdam-Hong Kong route? KL888. Flying United from Beijing to Newark? You’ll be aboard UA88. To San Francisco, it’s UA888. Fly any Singapore Airlines flight into China or Korea, and chances are the flight number begins with an 8. finally, the Beijing Olympic Games began on the 8th of August, 2008… at 8pm.
Flying Malaysia Airlines’ A380 from London to Kuala Lumpur, I became convinced that, in adding this aircraft to its fleet, MAS picked the lucky number.
[All photos courtesy of AirlineReporter.com]