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Redesigning Qantas’s Airbus A380

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Photo: Noah Webb

That’s the bad news. The good news is that Newson and Qantas have done a spectacular job working within narrow parameters. Newson, who is 45 and for several years now has been designing furniture, interiors, industrial objects, and consumer products that recall the swooping, curving lines of the early 1960’s, has a sensibility that fits neatly with the trend toward making airline interiors softer, lighter, and more curvy, and he has made the A380 far softer and lighter, and considerably more curvy than the average airplane. Newson’s aesthetic is more Jetsons than retro, with a kind of perky understatement to it. The cabin walls are a pale, quiet gray, doubtless an acknowledgment that neutrality, however dull, is probably better than chartreuse or magenta for a confined space where you are going to spend 15 or more hours. But Newson has brought subtle checked patterns to the seat fabrics and the carbon-fiber material that makes the lightweight seatbacks. The economy area is so large it is divided into three separate cabins: in the first, the seats are upholstered in a deep red; in the second, green; and in the third, orange.

Qantas, aware that you can get only so much of the feel of a plane on the ground, planned a two-hour test flight to show off the A380. Newson came along, as did the airline’s executives and the actor, pilot, and flying aficionado who, since 2002, has held the title of Qantas’s “ambassador at large,” John Travolta. (Travolta pilots his own Boeing 707, a surplus plane he acquired from Qantas; it was parked on the tarmac at LAX, looking tiny beside the A380.) Travolta sat in the cockpit, got onto the PA system to welcome the hundred or so invited passengers, and then introduced the real captain, Peter Probert.

We were all given boarding passes (they identified the flight as going from Los Angeles to “Fictitious Point”) with assigned seats. I was relegated to economy—in my case, Row 56—but since there seemed to be at least three seats for each of us in the section, this flight was not going to be any test of how comfortable the A380 would be for a passenger flying in tight quarters.

What it did demonstrate was how stunningly quiet, smooth, and fast the plane’s takeoff was. We soared off the runway and over the Pacific with the kind of ease, almost gentleness, that you would associate more with a Gulfstream than with the biggest airliner ever built. Probert explained the route: up the California coast to San Francisco, around the Golden Gate Bridge, then back to Los Angeles, touching down two hours after takeoff.

Once the seat-belt sign was off, the flight turned into a party. Qantas flight attendants served champagne and hors d’oeuvres—the same menu throughout the plane, just to avoid hurt feelings—as Travolta, accompanied by Olivia Newton-John, strolled around, shaking hands and posing for pictures. Almost everyone walked the length of both decks, an easy circle, since you can go up the curving staircase in the back of the plane, walk along the upper deck, and then go back down via the straight staircase that connects the two decks in the front, which is so wide that it seems more like something in a building than on a plane.

Indeed, because the sides of the lower deck are practically vertical and the ceiling is roughly flat, the feeling all the way through the lower level could be said to resemble a room—a very long room, to be sure—as much as the tube of an airplane. Qantas and Newson decided to put the first-class cabin in the front of the lower deck to give those passengers the benefit of the big, high space; they put the three economy cabins behind first class to maximize seats for the rest of the deck. Upstairs are the in-between classes: business fills the front two-thirds of the upper deck, and the premium economy section is behind it.

The business-class cabin is pretty much like any other, if a bit sleeker. First class is where Newson got to spread his wings, so to speak. Qantas didn’t want anything as dramatic—or as space-consuming—as the fully enclosed cabins that Emirates has put on its A380’s; instead, Newson came up with what the airline calls “suites,” semi-enclosed compartments with huge reclining seats set within low partitions. The seats can face forward or rotate 45 degrees to face a small visitor’s chair, which becomes the far end of a bed when the seat reclines to sleeping position. There is a large video screen, a touch-screen panel for controls, and a small work desk, storage rack, and dining table. It’s hardly the stuff of wild fantasy—“It’s not a Japanese love hotel,” Newson said to me—but it is a remarkably efficient, comfortable, and inventive use of space.

The most extravagant detail of all, however, isn’t in the first-class cabin itself, but in its bathrooms. They are large, with an expansive sink and counter, and there’s a window. When you walk in, the window, the surface of which is covered in liquid crystals, appears to be translucent. (Who could look in from the outside to invade your privacy, I’ll never know.) When you lock the door it transforms, as if by magic, into a transparent surface. Where else can you shut yourself in a bathroom and gaze out at the world from 30,000 feet?

Paul Goldberger is the architecture critic for The New Yorker.

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