Qantas has been flying A380 services between Australia and the US since October 20, and last week I took my first trip on Airbus' double-decker plane between Los Angeles and Sydney. Does the much-hyped A380 deliver on its promise of more space, better entertainment and — a crucial question for Lifehacker readers — improved productivity options?As someone who flies overseas at least half-a-dozen times a year and favours Qantas whenever I do, I knew that an encounter with the A380 was inevitable sooner rather than later. I don't class myself as a planespotter, so the mere experience wasn't going to be noteworthy, but I did want to see if the A380 could make good on its promise to offer better comfort and more in-seat work options in economy class — which is, let's face it, where most of us will be spending our time on planes for the foreseeable future.
The immediate attraction for me is the ability to plug in a laptop and work during the flight, which has long been possible in business and first but hadn't previously stretched into cattle class for Qantas. The outlet (designed to handle all major plug types without needing an adaptor, another handy improvement on earlier approaches) is located on the leg of the seat in front of you, so it's easy to plug in and get going. One important point to note: while there's a power point accessible from every seat, there isn't one assigned to every seat — a group of three seats has two points, so there is potential for arguments if you end up in a row of people all seeking to use their notebooks or charge their phones. (I'm not sure plugging in a power board, a perennial Road Worrier solution, would prove popular with the crew.)
Even with the in-seat power option, typing on a 15-inch laptop isn't easy in an economy-class seat. (I had the impression that there was marginally more space in this configuration than on the 747, but the fact the seat next to me was empty might well have influenced me here.) In that sense, the in-arm USB port, which you can use to charge a BlackBerry or iPod, is potentially more useful — and you won't get into a fight with your neighbour over who's entitled to it. Sadly, one option that wasn't switched on at all was the in-flight Internet access. Qantas had already announced that it wouldn't offer live onboard options until 2009, but even the promised cached Internet access wasn't anywhere to be seen. (I didn't test the onboard SMS option, or the ability to send messages to other seats, as I didn't know anyone else on the plane.)
The new cabin decor aside, the most noticeable change is in the in-flight entertainment system, which boasts a much larger screen and uses a touch-screen system to navigate between different options. I'm not sure how resilient the touch screens will be long-term, but they certainly make for a better interface than the ageing Windows CE systems found on Qantas 747s. The screen was a trifle pixellated, but that's better than the very apparent underlying grid on the 747 models. (The in-seat remote is also concealed under a flap, so you don't elbow it in your sleep, a useful design touch.)
Choosing TV shows and movies is also greatly improved - for TV series, you can select individual episodes, and there are more choices on offer. The previously mentioned business training videos are given their own separate listing.
The design improvements also flow through to options such as the in-flight map, which now continuously displays the current time in your city of origin and destination and the duration of the flight — no more waiting for that information to alternate between maps and temperature information in multiple languages. Another appealing frill is the Skycam, which shows you the view from a camera mounted on top of the plane (as seen in the blurry BlackBerry photo above). For our night flight, this stopped being interesting within a minute of taking off, but the morning descent into Sydney looked great.
Because I was seated near the front of economy (and hence near the front of the top deck), I wasn't conscious of the large number of people actually on the plane. My biggest worry with the A380 is that landing in the US, the queues for getting through immigration are going to be intolerably long. Since coming into Australia is much faster for a local passport holder, I haven't yet had that problem. And with the A380 already dominant on US routes, it doesn't seem I'll get much choice anyway.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman spends a good chunk of his life on planes, so any and all offers of on-board power are gratefully accepted. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.