The latest commercial aircraft, the stunning Airbus A350-900, made an appearance at KLIA recently.
I was a bit miffed to be woken up at 6:50am by an SMS from a "PR practitioner" who wanted to let me know that I was supposed to bring my passport along for the following day's flight. But, I quickly got over it as soon as the word "passport" sank in. Where the heck were we flying to?
You see, this was no ordinary flight that I was taking. It was a demonstration flight for the newest airplane in the world - the Airbus A350-900. This was its first time landing at the KL International Airport (KLIA) in Sepang, Selangor.
I love travelling, and planes (except for long-haul flights), but obviously I'd love the journey more if the planes were comfortable and great to travel in. So I was understandably excited at being among the selected top executives from local airlines, aviation authorities, media members and local industry and corporate partners allowed on board the spanking new aircraft to come out of Airbus' headquarters in Toulouse, France.
The plane had been on multiple journeys across the world to receive its airworthiness certification from both the European Aviation Safety Agency and the US Federal Aviation Administration.
This plane - the MSN5 - was one of Airbus' fleet of five test A350-900 aircraft, and one of two with a fully functional cabin (comprising 42 business-class and 223 economy-class seats). It was the first ever demonstration tour that the plane was undertaking and it covered five Asian stops: Seoul, Tokyo, Hanoi, Bangkok and, finally, Kuala Lumpur - all in 11 days.
About the passport, it definitely was not for a trip to Toulouse! No, it was for a short 90-minute trip to a place near Pangkor, and back. Why, then, the need for a passport? I don't have the answer!
Since the aircraft was parked at the Bunga Raya Complex in KLIA (that's where planes of dignitaries and VVIPs land and take off), we had to stroll across the tarmac to board the flight. It felt like the "glamorous" travelling days of yore (a typical scene at LCCT not that long ago, too).
What first struck me was the nose of the plane; it was almost a birdlike beak (think Rochelle of Pixar'sPlanes).
Interestingly, the wings are the standout here (think Rochelle again). It has "sexy" wingtips that bend upwards. But it's not for aesthetic reasons. Those tips can bend up to 5m, and according to different flight conditions. This is thanks to the materials used, which is primarily a carbon composite, according to Airbus A350 XWB customer affairs marketing director Mike Bausor.
This new XWB (extra-wide body) aircraft (900 is the variant being produced, but they also have the 800 and 1000) contains a lot of technological innovations, has an aerodynamic design, carbon fibre fuselage and wings, 53 per cent of composite structures with titanium and advanced aluminium alloys, and new fuel-efficient Rolls-Royce Trent XWB engines.
That, said Bausor, translates to a 25 per cent reduction in fuel-burn, which means lower costs and lower carbon emissions (the greenie plug). He also added that all these technological innovations also mean better efficiency and much lower maintenance costs.
Once on board, I must say, I gaped at the roomy interior. It does have the same 18-inch (45.72cm) seat width that the A380 has. But it must be noted that the aircraft we were on is fitted with an Airbus two-class cabin layout: 42 business class seats (four abreast) and 223 economyclass seats at 32- to 34-inch (81.28cm-86.36cm) pitch set nine abreast.
The business class seats were super-comfy and could stretch flat. Heavenly!
As we were reminded by Airbus Asia communications director Sean Lee, it is up to the respective airlines to decide on the eventual configuration - to a maximum of 369 passengers in a two-class layout.
This was confirmed by AirAsia X CEO Azran Osman-Rani, who was on board (as was Malaysia Airlines Group CEO Ahmad Jauhari Yahya).
"I'm impressed with the space available on this plane. If we use them, I'm looking at seven abreast for business and 10 for economy," he said.
I was also impressed with the mood lighting on the plane, which made me feel very calm and peaceful and, yes, even entertained as I tried to detect all the various hues. You see, the overhead LED lighting comes in a staggering 16.7 million different colour tones!
"It helps with different scenarios, and with jet-lag, because we can actually simulate the lighting to be a copy of that of the time zones so your body could be fooled into thinking it's a different time.
This helps your body to adjust to the new time zones. The airlines can also use the lighting for effective branding to go with the organisational colour," explained Bausor.
While Azran said he liked it, he added that AirAsia X already employs something similar in their aircraft, at a much lower cost.
This plane has much bigger windows, more comfortable flat walls at the window seats (none of those awkward curved and shaped ones that some planes have) and completely flat floors (no bumps).
The overhead luggage compartments are big: The lateral bins can hold five roller-bags while the central bins, three roller bags and two medium-sized bags. If you are among those who wait and board the plane a bit later only to find the baggage compartment fully packed (like me), this is another heaven-sent.
What's more, there's also more legroom, thanks to the control box for the back-of-seat TV screens being incorporated into the entertainment unit itself. Both business and economy classes get to enjoy widescreen HD, which is a fourth generation, so your in-flight entertainment will be top-notch.
As I was preparing to step off the plane, an announcement was made in jest that they were giving great discounts for those who booked a plane before disembarking (and credit cards would be accepted).
Dash it all, I had left my cards at home! I'm sure the MSN2-5 test planes would also be cheaper since they were by now pre-loved units. As for the first test plane, Airbus would be keeping it for more tests on improvements.
Passengers on Qatar Airways will be the first to experience a commercial flight on the first Airbus A350-900 plane when it is delivered before the year is over.