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Impressions of one humungous plane

TODAY Travel Editor Peter Greenberg rides aboard the A380 — the largest passenger jet ever.

When it was first announced, the Airbus A380 was billed as the biggest — and the best — passenger airplane in the world. Well, it's certainly the biggest, with double-decker seating and a wingspan of more than 260 feet.

And the early designs certainly heralded it as the best, with spacious luxury bars, beauty salons and even a duty free store.

But the realities of airline economics have set in. The airlines never installed the spacious bars, the waterfalls or the beauty salons.  The test flight I was on this past weekend was equipped with 519 seats, but remember: This is an aircraft designed to hold a staggering 853 passengers!

Delays of more than 2 years, caused in part by wiring problems, created a financial disaster for manufacturer Airbus. Freighter contracts were canceled, other orders postponed or canceled. Airbus reported a $1 billion loss and announced 10,000 jobs were being cut.

Still, Airbus is moving ahead, determined to get the new aircraft as much visibility as possible. However, no U.S. passenger airline has ordered the plane, and even Airbus admits the chances of an order from one of the big six U.S. airlines is currently remote.

On the ground, there are other problems. Most U.S. airports are still not ready for the 380. Los Angeles is spending more than $300 million dollars to move one of its runways to accommodate the giant plane.

And then there's the issue of processing passengers. How will 500 or even 800-plus passengers board the plane in a reasonable time?  That was tested on Sunday when more than 500 volunteers showed up at the Frankfurt airport, luggage in hand, to do four separate boarding tests before the big flight to the United States.

On the surface, the boarding tests went very well. The airline was able to get all 519 people on board in 19 minutes. That's Olympic record time.

They were helped, in no small part, by a new gate at the airport equipped with three separate jetways. In addition, there was no heavy luggage, no screaming babies, no rushing connecting passengers, and only five out of the more than 500 hundred passengers in wheelchairs.

The only slow down: security. Because of the high profile nature of the flight, passengers went through security checkpoints, and each was then frisked. But in total time (and not counting security), passengers were processed during boarding in less than 35 minutes. And that included checking bags. (Helped again in no small part by the airline opening up at least 10 check-in counters at the airport).

When it was time to push back from the gate, the runways were cleared. And in less than three minutes, the giant jet was airborne. (Helped in no small part by the fact that the head of all German air traffic control was on board!)

We rolled down the runway fast — 180 knots (that’s more than 207 mph) — but perhaps the most impressive aspect of the plane is how quiet it is. Remarkably less noisy during takeoff — and general estimates peg this at about 35 percent less noise than a 747. And the inside of the cabin was also quieter. The interior configuration was very passenger friendly — at least in first and business class. Coach was, well coach. And remember, this configuration has no bearing on what real-world configurations will be.

As for the entertainment onboard: You don't need a movie. I quickly became addicted to the tail camera — a live, continuous wide-angle shot from the plane in flight. The camera shows the plane as well as all the scenery above and below. You could even see a little bit of the curvature of the earth above the plane along with clouds, weather around it, and of course, everything below. If there had been a joystick provided to passengers watching the "tail cam," then I suppose we would all have been trying to fly the plane just based on the real-time image on our screens!

Of great concern with the A380 though, is how long will passengers will wait for their bags. That's the big unknown right now.

That was tested on the proving flight Monday. The bags made it off the plane at JFK, but the carousel was five bags deep — way too many bags for the belts — and that was with additional baggage personnel on hand to help.

How much will this plane resemble what ultimately goes into service later this year? (Singapore Airlines is planning to start service in October. Lufthansa, which has ordered 15 of the A380's won't start service with the plane until 2009. So this "test" and "proving" flight needs to be put in perspective. And each airline will configure their planes differently, and with differenet capacities.

"You have to be impressed by the simple fact that it's a leviathan, it's huge," says aviation journalist Joe Brancatelli, who also was on the flight. "But the seats we're sitting in no customers will really experience. This is just a showroom model."

And let's not forget about infrastructure on the ground. Airports — runways and jetways, not to mention baggage facilities — have yet to be built.

For the moment, the proving flight certainly got our attention, but the plane still has a lot to prove.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY's travel editor. His column appears weekly on