Up Front With Martin B. Deutsch



March 29, 2007 -- It's become fashionable for politicians to pre-announce their plans to announce for the presidency. On the heels of that ho-hum development, we've had a pre-introduction visit of the giant Airbus A380. It's a similar non-event that presages exactly nothing because the future of this ambitious aircraft is up in the air and scheduled service from the United States may still be quite a ways down the road.

Once the Airbus A380 finally enters commercial service, there is a philosophical question about its inaugural flights. Will this $300 million behemoth, of which only 156 have thus far been ordered, exert the same impact on commercial aviation that we experienced with the coming of jets in the late 1950s, the introduction of the Boeing 747 in early 1970, and the debut of the beautiful, but short-lived, supersonic Concorde in the mid-1970s?

Now configured in the range of 500 seats, with the ability to carry about 850 passengers, the Airbus A380 will certainly be larger than anything else flying the commercial air routes and it may well serve a definable role on some high-density international services, such as New York-London. On the other hand, the must-fly business traveler continues to opt for frequency and choice rather than finding himself or herself blown away by extravagant size. (On NBC's Tonight Show, Jay Leno quipped that this plane was so large that it had 22 Starbucks locations on board.)

While I was indulging in this idle speculation about the Airbus A380's potential place in the aviation firmament, my mind flew back to several of the milestone aircraft introductions in which I personally participated. I also had a chance to reassess their impact on aviation as we know it today.

On October 12, 1958, I was aboard the inaugural flight of the BOAC De Havilland Comet jet between New York and London. That flight opened a new age in air service and, at the same time, opened significant new opportunities for both business and leisure travel on an unprecedented global scale.

This debut flight crossed the North Atlantic in a then-startling 6 hours and 18 minutes. As luck would have it, however, we were treated to a harsh dose of reality once we arrived in London. BOAC, one of the predecessors of British Airways, went on strike, presumably to celebrate our arrival. Four days later, we flew home on Pan American's President Service, which made stops in Iceland and Labrador, a flight that consumed more than 23 hours. Talk about going from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Nevertheless, the return flight on Pan Am's lumbering, double-decker Stratocruiser was a delightful experience. This old-fashioned Boeing relic had a first-class lounge downstairs as well as four sleeper compartments above the seats in first class. We played poker for 18 hours downstairs and a fine old time was had by all.

The Comet would not be around for long as it proved to be economically unviable. Just two weeks after the Comet inaugural flight to London, Pan Am introduced New York-to-Paris service on the Boeing 707. (The Douglas DC-8 was in the wings, ready to join the jet-age competition, too.) I didn't fly that New York-Paris inaugural, but, on December 10, 1958, I was aboard the first jet flight on a domestic route. National Airlines used a leased Pan Am Boeing 707 to fly between New York and Miami.

There is no question that the introduction of the Comet, the Boeing 707 and the DC-8 would forever shape the travel patterns on the planet. And the executive behind the early orders for the Boeing 707, Pan American's Juan Trippe, would also play a crucial role in the next phase of aircraft development.

Working with Boeing's then-president, William Allen, the aristocratic and visionary Trippe ordered the construction of the first jumbo-sized plane, the 747. It would be able to carry more than 400 passengers in unrivaled comfort and security.

In the late 1960s, I was in Seattle to get a firsthand glimpse of the giant under construction in its hanger. On December 13, 1969, I was aboard Pan Am 004 on the first delivery flight of the 747 from Seattle to New York. There is no doubt that the 747 wrote an important page in aviation history and propelled Boeing into first place in the aircraft sweepstakes for decades to come. The Boeing 747 was and remains my favorite plane in any shape and configuration. It represents a magnificent entry in the annals of aircraft engineering and it further expanded travel horizons for passengers.

In the early 1970s, I accepted an invitation to visit Bristol, England, and Toulouse, France, for an in-depth gander at the British-French Concorde, then under construction in those cities by British Aircraft Corporation and Aerospatiale.

It was a thrill to get a preview of the slender, needle-nosed supersonic aircraft. It would eventually cruise at several times the speed of sound and cross the Atlantic in the still-unbelievable time of about 3.5 hours. Over the years, I flew the Concorde a number of times between New York and London and, despite its tight quarters, I always felt that the Concorde offered something above and beyond the normal flight experience.

As with the Comet, Concorde's staying power as a profitable vehicle was limited and it has now been stowed away for all time. But there is no doubt that it represented a significant step forward in aviation achievements and, I suspect, it is sorely missed by those of us who were able to enjoy its 27-year career.

I've experienced inaugural flights of other aircraft, such as the BAC-111, but none of them quite lived up to the excitement and the sense of history that surrounded the first jets, the first Boeing 747 and the Concorde. But I welcome the Airbus A380, whenever it finally does make its commercial debut.

My guess is that the mammoth A380 won't have quite the influence on airline history that some of these predecessor aircraft have had. Then again, I picked the New York Mets to win the World Series last year, so my track record for predictions isn't what I'd like it to be.

On the other hand, I can safely predict that this new Airbus will enjoy a longer life than the Hughes H-4 Hercules. That, of course, was the legendary Spruce Goose, the huge wooden flying crate developed after World War II by Howard Hughes. That big bird flew just once, in 1947, and then for only a few moments. May the A380 enjoy a much longer life!

Copyright 2007 by Martin B. Deutsch. All rights reserved.