Maiden Voyage Flying Emirates' A380 to New York

This month, the Airbus A380 made its American debut in commercial service when Emirates introduced the plane on its trans-Atlantic route. The flight allows the movers and shakers of globalization in Africa and Asia to reach New York via Dubai.

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After twelve and half hours of flying, one Bordeaux tastes the same as the next. Every seat position has been tried, and none are particularly comfortable. And even the most exciting film loses its appeal if you know that all it takes is a stretch of the arm to tap the screen and select any one of some 190 choices available. Luxury and tedium are close relatives. On the new Airbus A380, the two often meld.

How nice, that Emirates, the first airline to fly the A380 across the Atlantic, adheres to the old-fashioned idea of a bar. A half hour after takeoff in Dubai, just as the plane reaches Iranian airspace, the the plane's 23-year-old bartender Tobias Sears starts serving drinks. Later, he'll close the bar before the approach to New York. In the process, he'll have to pull people away from their entertaining and send them back to their seats in business class -- where they can watch TV, catch up on their zzz's or get a massage. The real highlight here, though, is the interesting passengers, not the plentiful bells and whistles.

Australian bartender Sears mixes a Screwdriver and places nuts on the counter. Almost 10,000 flight attendants had applied for the first scheduled A380 flight to New York, but only 24 slots were awarded for cabin crew on the maiden voyage, he said. "I didn't miss a day of work in the past two years, and it paid off," he said.

As part of Emirates' US launch of the A380, Sears has a packed itinerary. He'll spend three days in New York, two days in San Francisco and two days in Los Angeles before flying back to Dubai.

Emirates, an Arab airline, is currently expanding its lineup of destinations in the United States -- it's a development filled with politics and symbolism for the rising emirate. And the airplane it is using on its flagship North American route to New York is a double-decker A380 superjumbo, a plane designed and built in Europe that is so far only flown by Arab and Asian airlines.

Emirates has been flying to Houston for some time. Until recently the oil multinational Halliburton had its headquarters there, though it recently moved to Emirates' own base city Dubai. For the past six months, the airline has also flown to Sao Paulo. In the pack of globalization's winners, Brazil trails only China and India.

Soon, the company will also start service to the West Coast, with flights to San Francisco and Los Angeles. The non-stop flights will take about 17 hours, four hours longer than the New York route. It's exactly the kind of long-haul flight the A380 was built for. But what about the people flying it? Is anyone really interested in a neverending flight that crosses 10 time zones?

Chris Iheanacho, a 51-year-old Nigerian, stands barefoot at the bar. His pantlegs are too short, his shirt soaked in sweat, his business card crumpled up. He's not the kind of guy you would typically see in a frequent flyer ad, but he has collected more miles than many here. Iheanacho works for a firm in Lagos, Nigeria that supplies exploration equipment to oil companies. Each month he flies at least once to China, India and the US -- and he prefers to fly via Dubai.

"Dubai is located exactly at the centerpoint of my route," he says. "Europe would just be a detour."

Native New Yorker Leo Ohanian, a 38-year-old pharmaceutical entrepreneur whose company is registered in Dubai, often travels to India to market an insulin spray his firm created. "There are 40 million diabetics living in India," he says. "That's more than the populations of many countries." He wanted to be part of the maiden flight to New York so badly that he was willing to fork out €4,000 ($5,880) for the privilege.

Mona al-Aidarus, 23, a student from Abu Dhabi, sits coiled up in her economy class seat. She finds all the fuss over the plane embarrassing. She didn't even notice that the plane was any different from the others until she completed boarding. Aidarus lives with her husband in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but her family asks her to visit them back home as often as possible.

Tim Clark, 58, a Brit based in Dubai is sitting in first class on the upper deck in seat 6A. When he appears at the bar, a few people quickly gather around him. As CEO of Emirates, he's one of the most interesting passengers on this flight.

When asked if feathers are still ruffled at his company over delays on the plane, first delivered to Emirates on July 28 in Hamburg, he says airlines have bigger issues to worry about. "OK," he says, "Airbus was two years late with the A380," but why should he still be mad at the Europeans? He adds that, these days, the aviation industry has far worse problems -- oil prices, for example. "I hope that by next year we will be back down to $60 to $80 a barrel," he says, looking for a piece of wood to knock on. But his search ends in vain. "It's all imitation, believe me."

During its 23-year history, Emirates has weathered many a storm -- be it the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Sept. 11 or Bush's US-led march into Baghdad. But he says if a war is sparked in Iran, it would have altogether different dimensions.

"Some in the West speak as if we are dealing with a limited local conflict," Clark says. "But that's a mistake. If the Strait of Hormuz (between the United Arab Emirates and Iran) were closed, oil prices would be at $400 a barrel overnight." A hint of the apocalypse stirs through Business Class. This area around Dubai is a volatile one.

As the plane lands at JFK Airport, two minutes later than announced, hundreds of onlookers are standing near the runway.

"The Fire Department of New York is going to christen us with a jet of water," the airplane's first officer says, offering his last announcement of the flight. "Don't worry, it's a sign of hospitality."

It's been a long time since Arabs were so warmly welcomed in New York.

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