Qantas took the largest passenger plane in the world—the Airbus A380—and asked ultramodern designer Marc Newson to rethink the space inside. Is this the new shape of air travel?

Credit: © Noah Webb

In fact, inches are a lot harder to come by on the average airliner than they are on a football field, where nobody has to spend hours strapped into a space less than two feet wide and paying customers are allowed to get up whenever they please. Years ago, before air travel became mass transit, things were a little better because airplanes weren’t laid out to maximize the number of seats you could cram into them, and sometimes there was even—no one under 30 will believe this—extra space that could be used for passenger lounges. (Anyone remember the “piano bar” that American Airlines once had on its transcontinental 747’s?)

For a brief moment, it seemed as if the new Airbus A380, the largest passenger plane in the world, might bring some relief. At 239 feet in length—seven feet longer than a 747 but with two full levels along its entire length—the A380 has, if not quite the space of a football field, more room on its two decks than in two tennis courts put together. You ought to be able to loosen things up quite a bit with a couple of tennis courts’ worth of space to play with.

If the airlines choose to, that is. Qantas Airways, the latest carrier to take delivery of an A380—it follows Emirates and Singapore Airlines, which together put eight of the mega-planes into service over the past year—hired Marc Newson, the Australian-born, London-based designer, to reinvent the cabin for its first A380, the ninth to come off the Airbus assembly line. Newson’s assignment, he said to me, was to “design a cool aircraft interior, something that seems to have escaped most airlines.”

I went to Los Angeles to see the plane just after it touched down on American soil for the first time. There is a lot to say about what Newson has produced, most of which is sleek enough to make other airplane interiors feel like your grandmother’s parlor, and a lot to say about the A380, which is quieter and smoother than any jet I have ever ridden on. But if you are an economy passenger, let’s cut to the chase: all that extra space has been used mainly to make room for more seats, not to make more room for each seat. The Qantas A380, Newson said, has roughly an inch more legroom than the economy-class seats on its other airplanes, and most of that inch comes not from spacing seats out more generously, but from a new seat design and from the high-tech materials that have been used to make seat cushions that are much thinner than older ones. (The real reason they are there, however, is because they are lighter, not because they are thinner.) These seats are considerably more comfortable than ordinary economy seats, and Newson has figured out a way to give them a wider-angle recline and a simple, spring-based version of a footrest. But reinventing the economy-class seat means only so much if you can’t reinvent the space into which it is crammed, and I’m not sure that anything is enough to make up for the fact that this is still an awfully small space in which to spend a lot of time.

Qantas has designed its A380 with a total of 450 seats, which is about 40 more than on its 747’s and slightly fewer than Emirates and Singapore have shoehorned in. No airline has come anywhere near outfitting its planes with the maximum number of economy seats, which, if they were allowed to fill the entire plane on both decks, would be a horrifying 853, truly a modern-day version of steerage. As Qantas has configured its plane, there are 14 first-class “suites,” 72 business-class seats, 32 premium economy seats, and 332 economy seats. Even so, the last row of economy is called Row 88, and there is something quite sobering about looking at a boarding pass that says row 88 on it.

You may think that designing the interior of an airline involves making a series of aesthetic decisions, but it is really more a matter of juggling space and money and the marketplace: you make a lot more money from a business- or first-class seat, but each of them takes up a lot more space. Airlines want to avoid ending up with empty economy seats, wasted space that could have been used for business-class seats, which could have been sold at a higher price. But it’s no better to have empty business-class seats hogging space that could have allowed for more economy seats, if that is what is in demand. In the end, figuring out what the airlines call the “layout of passenger arrangement,” or LOPA, is a marketing calculation. If you put the LOPA together with the fact that the physical shell of the plane—not just its overall shape but the location of the doors, the stairs, the windows, and even the service areas—is pretty much fixed, you realize that there isn’t all that much a designer can do. The only real way to reinvent the interior of an airplane is to put fewer people in it.

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.