It took off without a hitch. Airbus' new giant double-decker, the largest airliner ever built, made a successful first flight earlier this...

Share story

It took off without a hitch.

Airbus’ new giant double-decker, the largest airliner ever built, made a successful first flight earlier this week with just six crew members aboard in orange flight suits. When the 22 wheels of the superjumbo touched down nearly four hours after taking off in Blagnac, France, aviation history had been made.

But the real test may come this fall, when the European aircraft manufacturer will have to prove to international regulators that 853 people can get off the plane in a mere 90 seconds, the safety standard. And that’s with only half the doors open, to simulate an emergency in which some doors are blocked.

The test of the giant plane’s emergency evacuation system — which includes 16 inflatable two-lane slides — will be the first such full-scale test ever done on a double-decker plane, according to Airbus.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

Airbus originally asked to be allowed to do two tests, evacuating each full-length deck separately. European regulators agreed, but U.S. authorities balked. “We are expecting a full-scale test,” said Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. “Emergency evacuations are not common, but the important thing is, if you have to do it, that you can do it safely.”

A federal study in 2000 found cases in which passengers died in survivable accidents because they couldn’t get out of a smoke-filled cabin quickly enough. In 1985, 55 of 177 passengers on a Boeing 737 died of smoke inhalation on a runway in Manchester, England.

The A380 test will use volunteers who will fill the big plane as it remains on the ground, buckle their seat belts and wait for a flight attendant to yell the evacuation order, simulating a survivable accident.

Airbus is marketing the jet as a 555-seater, but it will ask to be certified to carry a total of 853 passengers. Some airlines overseas are expected to use an all-coach-class configuration.

Chris Witkowski, air safety director of the Association of Flight Attendants union, said realistic tests of evacuations are important. “It’s the only way you can test the interactions of the equipment and the people. If you don’t do it prior to launch of aircraft, that first test is going to be with fare-paying passengers,” he said.

One big challenge will be the evacuation of the A380’s full-length upper deck. Some volunteers may hesitate when they look down at the 48-foot slide; others are expected to try to use the stairs to get to the lower level, which could create a logjam.

Gail Warner, a spokeswoman for Goodrich, said the design of the upper-deck slides might be altered to use a sort of hallway, “so that you exit the door, and you’re not looking down and seeing 40 feet of slide in front of you.”

Airlines are expected to start flying the A380 next year, and the manufacturer has orders for 144 planes.