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The first of Qantas' twelve refurbished Airbus A380 will begin flying the flagship Sydney-Singapore-London route next week, following an extensive make-over which includes a modernisation of the first class cabin and installation of the airline's latest business class seats, along with two new upper deck lounges.
The airline will first assign this dressed-up debutante to the Sydney-Singapore-London route across the early October, although with only one of twelve aircraft refitted it won't be a daily occurrence. As a result, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce tells Executive Traveller that setting foot on the refurbished A380 will offer a bit of "surprise and delight" to travellers.
From mid-October the superjumbo is plotted to shift onto the trans-Pacific route as QF11 flying from Sydney to Los Angeles, while future flights could also take in the 15-16 hour marathon between Sydney and Dallas/Forth Worth.
With each aircraft taking approximately eight weeks to upgrade the airline plans to have two more refurbished A380s in the air by the end of 2019 and all twelve A380s upgraded by the end of 2020, in time for Qantas' 100th anniversary – which will also see the ageing but fondly-regarded Boeing 747s out out to pasture as more Boeing 787s join the fleet.
Inside the upgraded Qantas Airbus A380
Don’t expect any major changes to the 14 first class suites on the lower deck, although that’s not a bad thing by any stretch.
There's basically nothing wrong with Marc Newson's bespoke design, which Executive Traveller rates among the best of the ‘open’ first class suites without sliding privacy doors.
Newson is once again working with Qantas on a modest refresh of the cabin and its materials, including more comfortable contoured cushioning in each suite. A larger HD video screen will replace the current 17 inch panels.
The interior of the first class cabin will also draw from some of the contemporary design DNA at Qantas' latest lounges, including the new Singapore first class lounge which is slated to open in November 2019. The end result will leave the A380 first class suites looking the same yet different – at once totally familiar but undeniably fresher.
The best news in Qantas' superjumbo revamp is that the original Skybed II seats will be replaced by the highly-regarded Business Suite of the Boeing 787 Dreamliners.
That seat, in turn, is a tweak of Airbus A330 Business Suite – and adds a movable divider between the middle seats so that travellers can choose between privacy and sociability.
It's a substantial improvement for business travellers, with the Business Suites boasting everything that the Skybed II designs lack: direct aisle access for every passenger thanks to a 1-2-1 layout; a bump-free flat bed; ample inflight storage and workspace, plus a 16-inch HD video screen that's much brighter and sharper than the Skybed II's 12.1-inch panel.
The reconfiguration will also see a slight increase in the number of business class seats, from 64 in the current A380s to 70 in the refurb'd birds.
The prize spot for most frequent travellers will be the first five rows of business class, which will sit in their own small cabin with a more exclusive vibe; behind this, and seperated by the galley kitchen and toilets, will be the larger main cabin with 50 seats across 13 rows.
The front of the upper deck will also house two lounge areas, and they promise to be more comfortable and passenger-friendly compared to the narrow and little-used lounge of Qantas' original Airbus A380 layout.
Qantas' refurbished A380s sees this space reimagined as a social cafe-inspired design with two tables fitted with soft LED lighting surrounded by comfortable padded benches and room for five passengers.
“Today everybody’s sitting along the bench and facing one direction, and that's not necessarily the best layout and the best arrangement for people to be in," Qantas designer David Caon tells Executive Traveller.
"Our lounge should be something where people are able to sit and face each other and discuss and talk... the kind of space that if there are two people that are travelling together but not necessarily sitting together, they can go (to the lounge) and spend time together."
The revamped A380s will also feature a second lounge on the other side of the stairway, where a small cabin crew office is currently tucked away.
Caon has repurposed this nook with seating for three people and, based on these concept images, a self-serve minibar for drinks and snacks plus what appears to be a large video screen for watching inflight movies.
Qantas is also said to be working on ways to damp the lounge’s sound profile so as not to disturb passengers in the front rows of the business class cabin.
The A380 overhaul will also extend to premium economy, with the same seats as the Boeing 787.
These will be installed in a 2-3-2 layout in a dedicated cabin behind business class, where a reconfiguration of the upper deck will allow room for 25 more premium economy seats, bringing the tally to 60.
The seats themselves are quite the leap for business travellers on a budget with a comfortable cradle design, some handy storage space, USB and shared AC power sockets, a decent-sized personal video screen and even a natty tablet holder if you belong to the 'BYO video' brigade.
However, one thing the A380 premium economy seats won't have is more legroom than their Boeing 787 counterparts.
Qantas has confirmed to Executive Traveller that the pitch - or distance between the seats - will be the same as on the Dreamliners, which means these otherwise excellent seats will remain squashed too close together. That proximity has been the most common criticism of premium economy passengers on the Qantas Boeing 787s.
Part of the A380 refresh will see the upper deck become an all-premium affair of business class and premium economy, with almost a third more premium seating than the current layout.
Ironically, this 'all premium upper deck' layout is the same as when the Qantas A380 made its debut in 2008. This change will also mean an end to the quiet and cosy economy 'mini-cabin' at the rear of the today's Qantas A80 upper deck.
There's less change for economy class travellers, who won't even see new seats such as those of the Boeing 787. Instead, they'll have to make do with new seat cushions and what Qantas broadly refers to as "improved inflight entertainment", which we expect will mean better seatback screens.