- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 18, 2005

TOULOUSE, France — Airbus introduced the world’s biggest passenger jet yesterday in a glitzy ceremony at which the leaders of France, Britain, Germany and Spain hailed Europe’s victory over the United States as the new king of the commercial skies.

The A380 superjumbo, which can carry up to 840 persons on its two full decks, supersedes the aging 747 by U.S. rival Boeing Co. as the biggest civilian aircraft ever made.

When it is put into service early next year, it will become the flagship of many airline fleets and offer unprecedented amenities on long-haul services, including, in some instances, gyms, casinos, bedrooms and bars on another level.

For the countries that backed the $14 billion development cost, the plane — hidden behind an immense black curtain until its unveiling — stood as a prominent symbol of European cooperation.

“Good old Europe has made this possible,” German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told a packed hall in Airbus’ headquarters in Toulouse in southwestern France.

That was a barely veiled barb recalling the U.S. dismissal of France, Germany and other European states in 2003 as “Old Europe” because of their opposition to the war in Iraq.

Airbus chief Noel Forgeard made similar comments in his presentation of the A380 during a colorful spectacle featuring computer graphics, atmospheric theme music, dancers and fountains.

“The European states — so easily accused of weakness — backed this fantastic challenge 35 years ago and have believed in the A380,” he said.

The double-decker A380 “superjumbo,” gives the European plane maker a new flagship and completes its range of jets at a time when Boeing is losing market share and reducing some production.

For the second year running, Airbus has outsold Boeing and now holds 57 percent of the world market for passenger aircraft.

The company, a majority owned subsidiary of the European Aerospace and Defense Co., forecasts that the A380 will help extend that lead.

Thirteen airlines have placed firm orders for 139 of the planes. Airbus calculates that by 2008 it will reach the break-even point of 250 A380s sold, and from that point it will turn out 35 of the aircraft per year to rising profits.

The price of the huge machine — boasting a wingspan of 262 feet, overall length of 239 feet, height of 79 feet and maximum takeoff weight of 560 tons — is between $263 million and $286 million, though discounts are frequently given.

It has room for 70 cars to park on its wings and looks like the hump-backed Boeing 747 but with the top section stretching all the way back to the tail.

Airports are having to spend millions of dollars to accommodate the plane and its massive wingspan over taxiways.

French President Jacques Chirac called the project a “big success” and said: “We can, and we must, go further on this path of European construction so essential for growth and employment.”

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “It’s a symbol of economic strength, technological innovation, the dedication of the work force that built it and above all of a confidence that we can compete and win in the global market.”

The four European leaders later lunched together, leaving industry VIPs to get close to the huge white plane with a sleek new blue-and-white logo sitting in its hangar.

Airline executives at the presentation offered high praise for the A380, even though it has yet to undergo test flights, scheduled for March or April.

Richard Branson, the head of Britain’s Virgin Atlantic, said his airline would pamper passengers on the six A380s it has ordered by including gyms, beauty parlors and bars — even casinos and double beds.

The biggest buyer of the new plane is the Emirates airline, which has ordered 43. “The A380 will be the future of air travel,” said its chairman, Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum.

Airbus’ success with the A380 is raising hackles at Boeing, which has won relatively little interest in its own new offering, a long-range mid-size plane called the 7E7 Dreamliner.

Yves Galland, chairman of Boeing France, called Airbus’ sales projections too optimistic.

“We know that passengers have other expectations,” he told Europe 1 radio, adding that travelers want “direct connections that call for an entirely different airplane” — a reference to the 7E7.

The plane is costing Airbus and its shareholders, EADS and BAE Systems, some $15 billion to develop, including $1.9 billion of cost overruns linked partly to efforts to keep its weight down.

“We are about 5 tons over the original spec weight, but that is less than 1 percent of the 560 tons maximum takeoff weight,” commercial director John Leahy said on CNBC television.

“Airlines are not at all concerned,” he said. Many aircraft, including the original 747, are overweight during development.

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