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Getting Ready for the Super-Jumbo Era

Illustration for TIME by David Hitch

As you swim across the pool to the champagne bar, you check your watch and realize the plane lands in an hour, so it's time to shower before arrival. It's also to time to get real. Whatever air travel brings in the next 20 years, hot tubs, fitness centers and piano bars are probably not part of the plan. Super-jumbos, double-decker aircraft capable of carrying up to 850 passengers, are being discussed by aviation executives with vast enthusiasm. Yet anyone who flies a lot knows that airlines wring every dollar they can out of their available inches, so the prospect for spas in the sky looks dim.

The Airbus Industrie A3XX is the plane that has sparked all the dreams of airborne cruise ships. The European manufacturer's new airliner will feature a double-decker fuselage and carry up to 656 people in three classes. The main deck will accommodate economy passengers in the same 3-4-3 configuration as the Boeing 747, but with an extra 26 cm of width, giving airlines the option of providing slightly wider seats or aisles. Airbus is betting $12 billion that airlines will want to fly more passengers on a larger plane. The firm hopes to start making deals with airlines next year to deliver the A3XX in 2004. The aircraft will cost around $200 million, $3 million more than a Boeing 747-400, but Airbus claims its plane will be at least 15% more efficient in terms of flight cost per seat.

Getting Ready for the Super-Jumbo Era
Whatever air travel brings in the next 20 years, hot tubs, fitness centers and piano bars are probably not part of the plan

Some citizens of Chengdu, the bustling industrial center of China's Sichuan province, have mastered the art of outdoor relaxation

Kitsch Report
With its ovoid shape, jutting spars and glowing appearance, the Millennium Dome looks like the docking station for some sort of alien ship

U.S. manufacturer Boeing, the current size-king with its 747-400, doesn't plan to build a super-jumbo, claiming that the market for bigger planes isn't big enough to bother. "We can build them, but the economics aren't very good," says Randy Baseler, Boeing's vice president for commercial-plane marketing. Instead, it is offering a stretch version of the 747 that will seat 500. The company is also focusing on medium-size, long-range aircraft such as the 301-seat 777-200X that will be able to fly from Hong Kong to New York nonstop. Boeing forsees the industry's current "hub-and-spoke" system giving way to more point-to-point connections, which many flyers prefer. Says Baseler: "Right now 80% of people flying into Asia from the U.S. go through Japan, most of them without wanting to. We think passengers will want direct routes to more varied destinations, and airlines will cater to that."

Airbus executives agree that more varied, long-range routes will develop, and they're planning aircraft to serve them. But the European firm figures that major population centers will still dominate traffic by virtue of sheer numbers. Passenger capacity in Asia is expected to triple in the next two decades, from the current 442,000 seats a year to 1.2 million. Airbus predicts that by 2018 there will be 660 super-jumbos in the skies over Asia.

So what's in all this for customers? Longer boarding and disembarking times, say critics, plus longer waits at immigration, baggage claim and customs. Airbus downplays such fears, arguing that an additional exit door will let passengers get off the A3XX as quickly as they would the 747-400. And Airbus figures that airports will have to cope with increased traffic anyway. "Larger jets will make more productive use of the limited number of slots airports have available," says Derek Davies, product marketing director of Airbus' large-aircraft division. He argues that fewer planes taking off and landing will equal less sitting around on the tarmac. For passengers in first and business class, the larger aircraft will likely mean more amenities, such as small bars and work stations. Airlines may also use the extra space to begin offering a fourth class, something between economy and business. Regardless of what the future of commercial aviation holds, though, it's doubtful you'll be needing your water wings in the air.

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