The global engineer

Is there any point in giant planes, ships and hotels? Our travel columnist volunteers her opinion.

Personally, I've always thought size isn't everything. Surely, quality is as important - no, more important - than quantity. But travel trends are now towards making everything bigger, if not necessarily better.

The new Airbus A380 has just entered service as the world's largest airliner, touching down at London's Heathrow airport for the first time in March. Until then, the giant's crown had been held for almost four decades by the US-made Boeing 747 jumbo jet. But the classic jumbo only carries around 400 passengers, whereas the new Airbus seats more than twice that number. Currently, Singapore Airlines is its only operator, but others will follow by the end of the year.

What are the real benefits in such expansion? The new Airbus is said to have been developed in response to the problems of airport congestion and because air traffic control systems are struggling to cope with so many planes in the air at one time. So a bigger plane means fewer take-offs and landings. This, argue the manufacturers, in addition to the A380's more efficient use of fuel, will benefit the environment.

Technically, there's nothing much new about the Airbus. It does use carbon fibre reinforced plastic for many of its component parts, including the massive wing box, where aluminium might previously have been used, thereby making it considerably lighter. But, despite its impressive dimensions, the A380's design is pretty conventional, with a cylindrical fuselage only slightly wider than a 747 and a standard low-mounted swept-wing configuration with four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines. But you can't have too much of a large thing. The A380's massive wingspan means most airports will have to widen their runways so two can pass each other.

Mass appeal

However, the Airbus hasn't definitively won the battle of the bulge. Some say plane size should be measured by maximum take-off weight. In that case, the Antonov An-225, made in Ukraine, triumphs on the scales. Originally built to transport the Buran space shuttle on its back, it is now used to ferry outsized cargo. And, being 30 years old, it is not an example of technological advances making it easier to be bigger.

But it's not only in the skies that everything is being expanded. The biggest ship in the world, launched this May, is the Independence of the Seas. You could fit the passengers from three 747s into this ship's on-board theatre alone. This floating city's vital statistics are staggering; it uses 3,500km of electric cables, almost 370,000m2 of steel plate, a hundred miles of piping and is longer than 311 football pitches. Standing upright on its bow (a terrifying thought), it would be higher than the Chrysler building in New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris and Rio de Janeiro's Christ the Redeemer. It produces 35,000kg of ice cubes every day. Apart from this, it doesn't do much more than any other ship: it sails to the same ports and serves the same wine. It just does more of it - 2,900 bottles per week, in fact.

So, as with the Airbus, is there any point in being part of the world's largest crowd? The beneficial new technology on board the Independence seems to have little to do with the size of the ship. There's a new water purification system, where a state-of-the-art AWP-plant purifies all of the ship's grey and black waters into one degree of pure drinking water. The separated sludge is then dried and incinerated with other combustible waste. All waste material generated on board is landed in ports. Nothing - except for that fully purified drain water - is released into the sea.

Bragging rights - or wrongs

This is purposeful invention on a grand scale. But much of the rush to be overblown is a desire to be boastful. It's no accident that Las Vegas is a town where size certainly matters, and 15 of the largest 20 hotels in the world are planted around its gaudy strip. Strangely, no one brags of having the world's biggest hotel room, which would make a real difference. It appears size only matters as a whole, not in the component parts. We can sleep in a shoebox as long as there are stacks and stacks of them.

It might be more pleasant making the biggest splash in the world's largest swimming pool at the San Alfonso del Mar resort at Algarrobo, on Chile's southern coast, which opened early this year. The pool uses a computer-controlled suction and filtration system to keep fresh sea water in permanent circulation, drawing it in from the ocean at one end and pumping it out at the other. The sun warms the water to 26°C. Chilean biochemist Fernando Fischmann, whose Crystal Lagoons Corporation designed the pool, says: "As long as we have access to unlimited seawater, we can make it work, and it causes no damage to the ocean." But again, why this innovative technology couldn't be used on a more modest scale is unclear.

In a recent column, I looked at how transport is getting faster and faster. Since then, I've had to give regular updates as the race to be fastest is continually broken. It's the same with the size wars; these modest measurements are only temporary. Already the Asia-Asia Hotel is under construction in Dubai with 6,500 rooms - almost 400 more than the First World. Stretched models of the A380 are on the planning board. But, in this race to be bigger, will it necessarily be better?

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