What’s News: Up, Up and Away

It took some courage, merely days after a test flight of Airbus’s new A380 super-jumbo jet was aborted mid-flight due to faulty landing gear controls, but 474 brave Airbus employees volunteered to do “ethnographic” usability testing on the new jet on September 4, 2006, in the first of four scheduled Early Long Flights (ELFs).

The company has actually conducted several test flights of its 308-tonne behemoth over the past year, but this was the first in-air test with a full-size passenger load on board. Its goal was to test out the airplane’s cabin environment and systems—things like air conditioning and heating, lighting, acoustics, in-flight entertainment systems, galleys, electrical functioning, and toilets—under real-world pressures.

This sort of testing is not required for air-worthiness certification, but the airline believes it is important to ensuring that the final product is one that will work well and satisfy customers. Doubtless the publicity surrounding the test flights is also aimed at helping to sell more planes. The other ELFs will be ten, twelve, and fifteen hours long, one with an overnight component.

According to the reports released publicly, the passengers were enthusiastic about their seven-hour flight, commenting in particular that the jet was surprisingly quiet during takeoff.

Skeptics note, however, that these passengers do not replicate the pressures that would be felt by a full load of time-stressed, non-employees, who may be inclined to view things with a more critical eye. Also, the plane is designed to handle as many as 888 passengers, whereas this one was configured to seat about half that many. However, most of the planes ordered so far have been in configurations designed to seat about 450 people, so for that configuration at least it is a reasonably sized test.

Earlier testing on the A380 included a five-hour ground cabin test, also involving 474 employee-passengers and twenty crew members. Passengers in that test were told to perform specific tasks at specific times to simulate maximum stress on some of the cabin systems. In addition, some passengers brought laptop computers to test the performance of the in-seat power supply.

In one of the most stressful tests—this one required for certification—Airbus had to demonstrate that it could evacuate 853 passengers and twenty crew members within ninety seconds in an emergency. The A380 has sixteen exits and emergency slides, but only half could be used for the evacuation, which was performed in the dark and without staff or passengers knowing in advance which exits would be available. It was filmed by infrared cameras for later analysis.

It passed the test, but one passenger suffered a broken leg and an undisclosed number of others suffered minor injuries. Inevitably, there were some compromises in the tradeoff between having a totally realistic trial versus avoiding needless injury to test subjects. One participant, Kieran Daly of Flight International magazine, noted that the participants were given a health screening and agility tests before being accepted, and that one queasy looking participant was removed before the emergency simulation. And, as one of his blog readers commented, “I suppose everyone being sober was a test concession. Not much chance in a western registered aircraft of everyone being alcohol free.”

Frank, T. (2006). What’s News: Up, Up and Away. User Experience Magazine, 5(4).
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