Touring a Qantas Airbus A380 at LAX

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. On my recent trip to Los Angeles, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes and see this massive plane from a perspective unavailable to regular passengers.


Qantas, Australia’s largest airline and the third-oldest in the world, flies multiple daily flights to Los Angeles International Airport from Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Generally, two of these flights are operated by the A380 and because of the time zone differences, the planes spend most of the day on the ground at LAX.


A friend who works at LAX was kind enough to offer a tour of the plane, a rare treat for a lifelong aviation enthusiast like me. Now, as the planes had a long layover, Qantas uses this time for maintenance and a deep cleaning. The planes had only just arrived and so they were pretty untidy when I viewed them. Normally, the interiors are immaculate, so don’t let these pictures affect your perception of the airline.


With 40% more usable floorspace than the Boeing 747-400, the Airbus A380 is the world’s largest passenger aircraft. Two decks running the entire length of the aircraft can accommodate up to 800 passengers, although Qantas has just 484 passengers in four cabins: First, Business, Premium Economy, and Economy.


The aircraft is 72.7 meters (238 feet) long with a 79,8 meter (261 foot) wingspan. There are 14 exit doors, 4 engines, and the aircraft range is 8,500 miles. While the Boeing 747-8 is slightly longer, the Airbus A380 is overall a larger aircraft.


My walk around the plane took several minutes, as the plane is so large, it is difficult to take in its full size, especially when you are up close.


Looking up at the tail, which reaches 24.5 meters (80 feet) tall, gives you some sense of the scale we are talking about.


While there were two A380s parked at the airport, we visited Nancy-Bird Walton, the first A380 delivered to Qantas. It was the 14th overall A380 built and its first commercial flight with Qantas was October 20, 2008. Interestingly, this plane suffered an uncontained engine failure on November 4, 2010 and made an emergency landing in Singapore. There were no injuries, but repairs to the plane took more than 16 months and cost more than US$140 million. It has served safely ever since returning to the skies in April 2012.


Climbing nearly three stories to enter the plane, you get a sense of the massive size of the wings. Even with more than four decades’ experience flying and sufficient knowledge of the principles of aerodynamics, I am still amazed that something this large can take to the air!


Entering on the main deck, a left turn leads us to the intimate First Class cabin. There are 14 individual seating pods, which offer privacy but are not as enclosed as on many of the Middle East carriers. I like this balance because on the carriers with “suites”, you feel like you are stuck in a cubicle at work, albeit a very nice one!


The 22-inch wide seats rotate to the side and then recline into a fully-flat 79-inch bed. In this mode, you feel very like you are in your own cocoon. When you are ready for bed, the flight attendants add a mattress and a duvet, so you will sleep cozily. Round-trip tickets between LAX and Australia run about US$23,000 in this cabin, so of course the experience is luxurious.


Heading towards the back of the plane on the main deck are two massive Economy Class cabins. Each has 17.5-inch seats in a 10-abreast configuration. Each seat has its own touchscreen monitor with loads of free entertainment.


While the seats are comfortable enough, especially with the adjustable headrest, at just 31″ pitch (the distance between the same point on two rows of seats), I would find this a tad too cramped for a 14-hour flight.


At the rear of the main deck is a spiral staircase that takes you to the upper deck. Hidden away at the rear of this upper deck is a smaller Economy Class cabin. With just 30 seats and a large exit row, these are the seats you want if you have to travel on a budget!


Just ahead of the small upper deck Economy Class is Qantas’ Premium Economy cabin. These seats are arranged just seven-abreast and at 19.5-inch width and about 38″ pitch, are equivalent to First Class seats on a domestic flight.

IMG_2205AWith only 35 of these seats in this mini cabin, this would be my choice to enjoy some comfort on a long flight without breaking the bank.

IMG_2208AAhead of the Premium Economy cabin are two Business Class cabins, seating a total of 64 passengers. The seats are arranged in pairs, six-abreast. This layout, which has been in place since the introduction of the A380s, will soon be replaced with a new layout which allows each passenger direct access to the aisles. Truthfully, though, I prefer this type of pair seating as it feels less confined to me and is a better arrangement when traveling with another person. Even which the seats are reclined, it is not difficult to get to the aisle.


The seats recline to a fully-flat bed that is nearly identical in dimensions to the First Class seat. The primary difference, as near as I could tell, is in shoulder space, which is narrower in the Business Class product. Also, you are more exposed, although the padded “hood” ensures privacy and helps dampen any noise. When I fly long distances, sleep is more important to me than caviar, so I would opt for the Business Class seat and save some money. (Of course, I am still a long way from affording a Business Class ticket!)

So far, everything I have shared is pretty visible to the average passenger, although they don’t let you ramble about on the tarmac! So let me share some of the behind-the-scenes views.


In the middle of the main deck is a door that looks like a regular lavatory entrance, except it has a combination lock on it. Open the door and there is a hatch in the floor and a ladder descending into the cargo hold level.


Descending into the belly of the plane, there is a flight attendant rest compartment, that has 12 bunk beds, private pods in which the crew can sleep during the flight. Long-haul crews are assigned rest periods of several hours and they can choose to rest here. Each bunk has a curtain, reading light, and other amenities. They are small places, similar to the capsule hotels in Japanese train stations, and the one wedged in under the stairs has barely any room for your feet.


There are also four economy class seats in the back of the galley located at the rear of the upper deck. With curtains for privacy, these seats allow another place where flight attendants can sit between performing their duties.


Another hidden space at the front of the Business Class cabin is the purser’s station. This small workplace and several storage closets are cozy, but provide extra space for the crew. It is worth mentioning that on Emirates, the Dubai-based carrier and the largest operator of the A380, this space is used for showers for First Class passengers.


We also explored the flight deck, which is located several steps above the main deck. When you go through the first door (in which I was standing as I took this picture), you enter an entirely self-sustaining area. To the left (at the top of the hand rail) is a lavatory for the pilots and to the right are two pilot rest areas.


The pilot rest areas are stacked like two puzzle pieces. Each contain a comfortable chair, similar to a Premium Economy seat, and a bed. The A380 flies with four pilots and they work in shifts. All four pilots are seated in the cockpit during takeoff and landing, but during the cruise phase, the off-duty pilots can go to the rest areas if they wish.


The A380 uses a “glass cockpit”, which means that instead of dials and gauges, monitors display all the primary functions of the plane. Additionally, all Airbus planes use a “joystick” device (visible to the right of the co-pilot’s seat) instead of a yoke or control column.


Of course, my childhood dream was to be a pilot and I am jealous of the view that my friends who are pilots have from their office windows.


To get a sense of just how high up you are in the A380 cockpit, I leaned out the window for a selfie! Must be careful not to mess up my hair.


After poking around a bit more, we climbed down from the plane. I walked underneath, which is high enough to walk under without ducking, but low enough that you can reach your hand up and touch the belly of the plane. The view above is of the main landing gears: four bogeys with a total of 20 tires.


These wheels are about as high as my sternum. Combined, they can handle up to 575,000 kg (1,268,000 lb) maximum takeoff weight.

IMG_2298The view looking forward to the nose wheel. In the distance, a Qantas Boeing 747-40 sits in the hangar, undergoing maintenance.


I hope you enjoyed this behind-the-scenes tour of the A380. Many thanks to my friend at Qantas for giving me this unique experience and I hope that one of these days, I have the opportunity to fly Qantas across the Pacific.

Learn more about the Qantas A380 experience here.

Hawaiian Airplane Porn

While most people have a limited appreciation for it, after I take a long trip I long to post some airplane porn for Matt and the few other people who read this blog who are aviation enthusiasts. If your pulse doesn’t quicken when you watch an airplane take off, feel free to skip this entry and come back tomorrow when we’ll return to regular programming.

San Francisco to Maui


While waiting for our flight to Maui, I capture this picture of a pair of United Boeing 757-200s, a United 747, and a Lufthansa Airbus A380 (the largest commercial plane in the world) at the international terminal. Sadly, didn’t get to see the “whale jet” depart while we were there.


A United Airlines Boeing 747-400 taxies to the runway for a trip to somewhere in Asia. Its wings are heavy with fuel and you can see how far they flex back downwards. Pity the poor economy class customers who, on United, are still stuck watching inflight entertainment on “the main screen” at the front of the cabin.


Our plane to Maui, a Boeing 767-300, pulls up to the gate more than a half-hour late. The hills of Oyster Point in South San Francisco are in the background and some of the Genentech campus is visible. Our plane is in the new United color scheme, an uninspired hybrid of the Continental pain job and the United name.

Video of our take off roll from San Francisco as well as our landing over the sugar cane fields in Maui.

Interisland Flying


Early morning at Kahului Airport on Maui. An Island Air flight pushes back as an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 beings its take off roll to one of the more than a half-dozen destinations they serve from Maui.

Video of our departure from Kahului Airport on Maui and the beautiful reefs just off the end of the runway.


The beautiful view of West Maui as we climb out of Kahului and head towards Honolulu. If you are flying in the islands, I recommend a window seat.


Our inflight service on the short Maui to Honolulu flight consisted of a container of passion-orange “nectar” – which contains only 10% juice. This is the same thing served on every Hawaiian Airlines interisland flight. Talk about simplicity of service!


Alaska Airlines has built up its presence in the Hawaiian islands the past few years, operating these Boeing 737-800s which are certified for longer-distance overwater flights. Alaska specializes in flying to connecting smaller markets (Sacramento, for example) to the islands, trying to avoid as much direct competition with the larger mainland carriers.


Delta Airlines has a large presence in Hawaii since their merger with Northwest Airlines a few years ago. They operate daily flights to Tokyo and Osaka, and seasonal flights to Nagoya and Fukuyoka, Japan. There is a Boeing 747-400 on the left and a Boeing 767-300 on the right. You can just see the tail of an All-Nippon Airways (ANA) jet and the rugged silhouette of Diamond Head in the background.


This United Airlines Boeing 767-400 is originally from the Continental Airlines fleet and operates daily flights to Guam. We flew this flight last year when coming to Kauai, with an interesting Bangkok-Hong Kong-Guam-Honolulu-Kauai routing.


A pair of Japan Airlines Boeing 767-300s, one almost obscuring the other. Hawaii is a popular destination for Japanese tourists and five different airlines complete to carry them.


A view of the Hawaiian Airlines maintenance facility behind the interisland terminal. Must be nice to work out in the fresh air every day, although it must be a mess when a rain shower comes through. Hawaiian usually is at the top of the Department of Transportation’s on-time list even though their aircraft work a very busy schedule with a higher-than-average number of flights each day.


Our bird for the twenty-five minute flight from Honolulu to Kona, a Boeing MD-87. This plane is an updated version of the Douglas DC-9, which traces its roots to the early 1960s.


A pair of Korean jets at the gate in Honolulu. In the foreground is an Asiana Airlines Airbus A330. A Korean Airlines Boeing 747-400 is in the background. Interesting that Korean flies such a bigger jet – nearly twice the passenger capacity – in Honolulu. Perhaps this is because of their code share with Hawaiian Airlines.


A United Airlines 767-300 touches down as we taxi to the end of the runway. Tough to shoot these action shots and I missed the burst of smoke when the tires first hit the pavement.

Video of our departure from the “reef runway” at Honolulu International Airport.


Climbing out of Honolulu, you see Waikiki Beach on the left and Diamond Head crater on the right. Our hotel was on the beach right where that large patch of grass is to the immediate left of Diamond Head.


Flying over Maui. Just below the middle of the cloud line on the left side of the picture, you can make out a speck of an island. That’s Molokini crater, a fantastic spot where we went snorkeling.


We arrived in Kona and deplaned using this accessible ramp. Much easier for people with mobility impairments to use, although sort of ungainly looking.


Another Hawaiian Airlines MD-87 at Kona. Kona is a small airport with two gate area “clusters”. While we had purchased our ticket from United Airlines with the code-share flight on Hawaiian from Honolulu to Kona, connecting to a United flight to San Francisco, schedule changes from both airlines resulted in a short, 45-minute connection time. At most airports, this would be sufficent, but we (and about 20 other passengers who were making the same connection) discovered that you have to exit security from the Hawaiian Airlines gate area, walk around the front of the terminal building, and pass through security again to enter the United gate area. Inconvenient.

Back to the Mainland


While heading out to our plane, I caught this picture of a Boeing 757-200 preparing for its trip to Los Angeles. This plane leaves just a half-hour after the San Francisco-bound plane, resulting in a bit of congestion at the security screening for the United gates.


While we were in a rush to get to this fight, we still took time to pause for a picture. It is a shame that so few airports in the United States board by air stairs anymore. In fact, Kona is the only major airport in Hawaii that hasn’t moved to loading bridges. There’s a certain romance to walking across the tarmac and it certainly makes you appreciate the size of the planes.


View looking towards the tail moments before entering the plane. Tawn and I were the last passengers aboard.

Short video of us departing Kona airport.


Departing out of Kona, I made sure to select a window seat on the right-hand side of the plane. Tremendous view of Mauna Kea, the 13,796-foot (4200-meter) high mountain that forms the Big Island of Hawai’i. Hard to see in this resolution of the picture, but when I look at it in Picasa, you can see the white specks that are the observatory.


Chicken wrap “meal” for sale on the five-hour flight from Kona to San Francisco. This plane does a turn-around in Kona with the same crew that flew in from San Francisco in the morning. All of the catering, including the food, is boarded in SFO, flies across the Pacific, and then is served (er, “sold”) on the return leg. When I was considering my options, the flight attendant mentioned that she still had some breakfasts from the morning flight, in case I wanted to buy one of those.

Back to Thailand


On approach into San Francisco International after our trip to Kansas City. You can see the salt evaporation ponds in the Mountain View, East Palo Alto, and Redwood City area. Taken from a CRJ-700 regional jet, which operates this three-and-a-half hour flight. Long time to be in an RJ but at least United is operating two nonstops a day after years of having to connect in Denver.


A view of the F gates at San Francisco international airport with Mount San Bruno in the background.


EVA Airways lounge in San Francisco. I cashed in some miles so my travel companions could have lounge access, figuring since this was their first time flying so far, it would be good to make the experience as relaxing as possible. The lounge isn’t the nicest in the world but offers more comfort than the gate area seats.


Wonton soup. The bowls of wontons are covered with plastic wrap, then you ladle the hot broth yourself. Seems to work pretty well.


A selection of small desserts and a passable latte from an automatic machine.


Before leaving the lounge, I asked the attendant to take a picture of us: Tawn and me with my sister, brother-in-law, and some random man who is looking for a magazine to read. This was their first trip to Asia and you can see the anticipation on their faces.


On the way to our gate, I see a Swiss Airbus A340 preparing to depart for Zurich. A United Boeing 777-200 taxies by in the background.



Brother and sister posing in front of a United Airlines B747-400. We grew up the children of a United Airlines employee and I worked for them briefly after high school, so we have a strong emotional connection to the airline, despite everything it does to try and ruin the travel experience.


Our “Elite Class” (premium economy) cabin for the EVA Airways flight from San Francisco to Taipei. Since it was a daylight departure, I gave Jenn and Kevin the window seats so they could enjoy the view as we climbed out of San Francisco.


Taipei Wrap Up

Despite traveling from one end of Taiwan to the other on the High Speed Rail, I was back in Taipei by ten minutes after noon.  I rushed to one of the subway lines and a few minutes later, met my friend Jay for lunch at a large hotel.


Jay and I worked together during the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival many years ago.  He has since moved back to Taiwan and is running a company that produces and distributes various media with an emphasis on television channels.  After lunch, he invited me to attend a press conference that was being held to promote a competition held by the Syfy channel.


Lin Yu-hsien, Director of the 2011 Taiwanese hit film Jump Ashin, appeared at the press event with two young ladies who, if I understand correctly, work with the tourism board and produce all sorts of internet media.  Their “thing” is that they plank all over the place in Taiwan.  Why anyone would choose to lie face down on a hotel conference room’s carpeting is beyond me.  How they relate to the Syfy channel contest is beyond me, too.  Made for an interesting experience, though.


Afterwards, Jay and I embarked on a somewhat whirlwind series of events.  First stop, the Taipei Fine Arts Museum where we breezed through several exhibits including one featuring works by Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei.  Maybe we weren’t in much of an art mood, but neither Jay nor I were particularly impressed by the artist’s works.  The one above, “Forever Bicycles,” is perhaps the best-known work in the exhibit.  It is visually interesting but I’m not sure that it really says all that much. 

We also stopped for coffee at the downtown Taipei airport and hung out on the observation deck, which has good views of flights coming and going for “near international” destinations like Tokyo and Shanghai. 

I headed back out to Taoyuan Airport, the main international airport, using the high speed train and bus connection.  As our schedules worked out well, I was able to meet Xangan Jack (made2order), who had just returned to Taipei a week earlier and was helping a chef friend at the Novotel airport hotel conduct a cooking class.  No pictures, unfortunately, but enjoyed talking food and cooking with him and the chef friend, an Indian man who has worked in Taipei several years.

Back at the airport, I zoomed through security and immigration and headed to the lounge, where my carry-on bag was waiting for me in the locker.  Enough time to shower again, change clothes, and catch my breath before boarding the flight to Bangkok.


As I mentioned in my previous post, I used miles to upgrade to business class on this final segment of my trip.  I did this primarily to make sure I had access to the airline lounge, lest I end up stuck at the airport for my entire 15-hour layover.  The other benefit, of course, was that my final three-hour flight was an extremely comfortable one!


Menus were distributed before takeoff along with glasses of Champagne.   EVA has started distributing menus for the economy class on long-haul flights, too, which seems a little silly but at least you end up feeling like your choice of meals is a bit nicer than just “chicken or beef”.


Business class cabin on the A330.  The load on this flight, which continues from Bangkok to Vienna, was light, maybe 40% in business class and not much more in economy.  The man sitting across the aisle from me was also taking lots of pictures so I guess someone else has blogged about this flight, too.


Appetizer of a chicken pate served in crust with salmon roe and salad.


Choice of various breads including garlic toast.  The one of the right is a rustic whole grain bread.


My selection for dinner, poached noodles with braised beef shank and tendon served in superior sauce.  Very tasty, although a little bit of tendon goes a long way for me.


On-board espresso machine produces lattes and other drinks to order with a rock sugar stir stick.


Dessert was a modest fruit plate.


Business class passengers were given an immigration priority lane pass, which was really pointless for a 2:30 am arrival as that is after the last wave of arriving flights and there are no lines at the immigration counters.  That said, I breezed through and was the first to arrive at the baggage claim.  I then had to wait fifteen minutes for the bags to start arriving.  Thankfully, mine were among the first few bags to come off the belt!

Catching a taxi home, I was in bed by 4:00 am, exhausted from my more than fifty hour journey from Kansas City.

Winner of the United Retro Jet Contest

This year marks the 85th anniversary of United Airlines.  In a post last November, I mentioned that they were holding a contest for employees to vote for their favorite previous livery.  The winning livery would then be painted onto a “retro jet” to commemorate the anniversary.  Five previous color schemes were presented, voted on, and I recently saw that the Airbus A320 painted in the winning colors recently took to the sky:

Retro A320


I’m quite excited because of the five liveries, this was my favorite.  It is the one I associate with my early childhood in the 1970s.  I remember drawing airplanes when I must have been in my early elementary years and this was the color scheme I could recreate from memory.

The other four liveries that represent the different eras of United Airlines.

While I’ve had my rough patches with United over the years, it is the company that my father, my husband, and I (not to mention countless friends) all worked for at various points in our lives.  Happy 85th anniversary to the Friendly Skies.  May the merger with Continental make the skies friendly once again!