The Henri Ziegler Delivery Centre in the French city of Toulouse has the look and feel of a normal, functioning airport terminal.
There are check-in desks arranged in a row on one side, while flight information display screens show upcoming departures. On this clear, if slightly crisp, evening there is only one flight on the screen.
There is a security scanning point, as well as passport control for international passengers. There are also boarding gates and aerobridges.
This is no ordinary terminal however.
Instead, the Airbus delivery centre is where the last steps are completed before the airline customer “picks up the keys” to an aircraft and flies it away.
Tonight, it is Virgin Australia in the spotlight, with the carrier taking delivery of an Airbus A330-200 fresh off the Airbus final assembly line. The aircraft is fitted with 279 seats – 24 in business and 255 in economy – most of which will remain empty for the trip back to Sydney given the only passengers on board are a few cabin crew, airline staff, invited guests and media.
Given how few passengers there are, check-in for flight VOZ9082 is completed in minutes, leaving just enough time to have a quick wander around the facility.
It is at this point that the difference between the Airbus Delivery Centre and any other airport becomes even more apparent. Instead of being made to walk through a maze of duty-free shops and retail offerings, the facility has an auditorium-like setup, with a stage and seating for presentations set against massive glass windows that look out on to the gate area.
There is no formal ceremony and no speeches before this evening’s departure, just a small sign congratulating Virgin on picking up its brand new Airbus A330.
Instead, passengers are brought to the departure gate where, after security screening and passport control, they head down the aerobridge and board the aircraft.
Champagne Fuels The Party Atmosphere
Not surprisingly almost everyone is in business class – Virgin engineers monitor the aircraft’s performance with some special equipment during the flight from the main cabin – and with the champagne flowing a party atmosphere soon develops.
And as the Rolls-Royce Trent 772B-60 engines roar to life and the aircraft speeds down the runway, it is clear this is not going to be any ordinary flight.
The aircraft delivery process takes a few days. Taking delivery is not simply a matter of picking up the keys and handing over a cheque. The process usually takes time as technical staff from the airline conduct a series of tests both on the ground and on a series of test flights to ensure the aircraft meets all the promised specifications.
These can be anything from the standard of work on the cabin interiors to the performance of the engines. Only when both the manufacturer and the airline agree that the aircraft has satisfied all the technical requirements and terms of the contract will the certificate of airworthiness be issued and ownership transferred, allowing the airline to officially take delivery and fly home.
If the manufacturer’s work is not up to scratch the aircraft will not be accepted, leading to delays.
As an example, Qatar Airways repeatedly pushed back delivery of its first double-decker Airbus A380 super-jumbo throughout 2014 before acceptance. The Doha-based airline’s chief executive, Akbar Al-Baker, said at the time the standard of work in the cabin was not up to scratch.
The 'New Aircraft Smell'
There were no such issues for Virgin on this delivery flight, with invited media arriving two days before the scheduled departure date for a first look at what were new cabin interiors for Australia’s second largest carrier.
In addition to an updated economy class offering, the business class cabin features angled, lie-flat seats.
Virgin chief executive John Borghetti and the airline’s creative director, Hans Hulsbosch, were on hand to talk through the new design features while the few cabin crew who came along for the trip happily posed for photos.
“I don’t know of another airline that has a product of this standard in a domestic service anywhere in the world,” Borghetti tells journalists.
“It costs you the same to design something well as it does to design something that’s not nice so why not design something that’s nice?”
And like a new car, this new aircraft definitely had “new aircraft smell”.
In addition to the meet and greet with Borghetti and co from Virgin, Airbus also takes the opportunity to conduct briefings on its various aircraft programs. During this trip there were presentations on the A330, the A380 and A350 programs, as well as a session with Airbus’s chief salesman, John Leahy.
These sessions usually follow a familiar script, with Airbus executives touting the superior performance of the Airbus airframe compared with similarly sized models from their direct competitors.
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The New Champion Of The Skies?
Breaking through all the data about fuel burn, cash operating costs, seat counts and range, it essentially boils down to this: “We reckon our aircraft are better than those from Boeing so airlines should buy ours.”
Toulouse is the site for Airbus’s A330 final assembly line, where components that arrive from all over the world by truck, train and a specially configured transportation aircraft called the Beluga are put together.
The fuselage sits at a station where an army of workers, each with their own specific role, busily attach wings, hang engines and fasten components with the thousands of rivets needed to complete the job.
Airbus has been churning out 10 A330 twin-aisle aircraft a month since 2013, which is a remarkable feat of engineering given the size of these giant flying machines and the diversity of the supply chain.
Prior to the Henri Zieger Delivery Centre, aircraft deliveries were a more low-key affair. Airbus built the centre in 2006 as a dedicated facility for airlines to complete all the requirements of taking an aircraft and gave them the ability to mark the occasion with a bit of pizazz in the company of staff, sponsors, suppliers and other key stakeholders.
The main building, where all the ceremonies and official receptions take place, is about 8,000 square metres, while deliveries are separated into three satellite buildings depending on aircraft type.
It was here that Qantas celebrated the delivery of its first Airbus A380 at a moonlight ceremony in September 2008.
First Taste Of The Giant
The evening departure from Toulouse meant everyone quickly changed into Virgin-supplied pyjamas after take-off, while the crew offered a dinner service using catering supplied by Airbus. It was typically French, with foie gras one of the options on offer. As well as more champagne.
While passengers mingled in the aisles and wandered up and down the empty economy cabin, the night sky lit up the cities of Europe below.
The excitement of those on board eventually gave way to sleep, with seats reclined and blankets unfolded for a few hours' shut-eye before a refuelling stop in Kuala Lumpur on the way back to Sydney. Some passengers chose to head back into the main cabin to sleep along the four seats in the centre row.
The night skies of Europe eventually gave way to dawn, as the aircraft passed over the Middle East, then India and eventually Thailand and the top of Malaysia.
Breakfast was offered, with the meal again featuring some French elements such as pain au chocolat and, if needed, some more champagne.
While this delivery flight was due to make a technical stop at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, there have been occasions where Australian airlines have made the journey straight through from Toulouse to Australia.
Qantas and its low-cost carrier subsidiary Jetstar have flown new Airbus A330s direct from Toulouse to Melbourne Tullamarine on a number of occasions, with a flight time of a little over 20 hours for the 16,889-kilometre journey.
On this occasion, however, everyone is grateful for a chance to stretch the legs after the late afternoon arrival in the Malaysian capital.
After touching down, the aircraft was parked at a remote stand where it was cleaned, restocked with a fresh supply of food, water and other amenities, as well as refuelled for the final leg back to Australia.
During the 90 minutes or so the plane was on the ground, passengers stayed on the aircraft or headed out on to the attached stairs to stretch their legs. At dusk, the doors closed and the stairs retreated, leaving VOZ9082 clear to complete the last sector of the long journey from Toulouse to Sydney.
The atmosphere was more subdued on this final night, with the realisation the adventure was almost over and passengers enjoying the extensive selection of movies and television programs on offer via individual inflight entertainment screens while snacking on canapes and wine.
Some managed a few hours’ sleep before being woken by the sun’s rays as they poured into the cabin from the left side windows.
There was one final moment to delight those who had made the journey when, after landing, the aircraft was taken to a parking spot just a short walk to passport control, meaning it took just a few minutes to clear immigration and pick up any check-in luggage.
A quick hug of thanks and farewell to the crew and everyone was soon back in the real world after a truly memorable flight.