- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 16, 2005

PARIS — Airbus, which has delivered more airplanes than Boeing for the second year in a row, is about to introduce another No. 1: the world’s largest passenger jet.

The A380, a four-aisle, four-engine, double-decker “superjumbo,” will roll onto the tarmac tomorrow at Airbus headquarters in southern France, in a lavish ceremony attended by leaders from the European Union and thousands of guests.

Sales have beat expectations so far, and most of the technical problems that have dogged the program have been resolved, at a price.

But the real sighs of relief won’t be heard in Toulouse until later — sometime before March 31, Airbus says — when the A380 hauls its 308-ton frame aloft.

That is when the plane’s engineers will begin to find out whether their gargantuan offspring lives up to the performance promises, as the first test-flight data stream in.

In a standard three-class cabin configuration, the A380 will carry 555 passengers — one-third more than the plane it is designed to displace, the Boeing 747.

On a full tank, it also will carry them 5 percent farther than Boeing’s longest-range jumbo, Airbus says, producing costs per passenger that are up to one-fifth less than its rival’s.

Meeting these targets has been “no picnic,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Noel Forgeard said Wednesday, when he also confirmed that the A380 is both over budget and overweight.

Mr. Forgeard said the plane will weigh about 1 percent more than its target of 305 tons, but stressed it still will deliver on promised fuel efficiency and other guarantees, since the internal benchmark deliberately was overambitious.

He said the program’s $1.9 billion overspend — 18 percent of its $10.7 billion overall budget at current exchange rates — likely would be trimmed by a renewed cost-cutting drive.

The struggle to meet weight targets accounts for much of the overspending, Airbus officials say. Jean-Claude Schoepf, head of the A380 final assembly line, said the problem became a headache early on.

“We found there was too much mass,” Mr. Schoepf said. “We had to work pretty hard to get back to the specifications we’d committed ourselves to with our clients.”

Parts went back to the drawing board to be pared meticulously, without sacrificing strength. More carbon composites were introduced — for example, in the horizontal struts that support the two cabin floors and hold the fuselage in shape.

By using chromate-free paint, engineers got the outer paint work down to about 770 pounds, Mr. Schoepf said. “That’s compared to 1,210 pounds for a plane of this size using other paints.”

At the giant hangar where Mr. Schoepf and his 1,500 engineers and support staff work, wings, nose cones and fuselage sections arrive by road convoys after being transported by barges from Bordeaux, in western France, where they come in from Airbus facilities in Spain, Britain, Germany and elsewhere in France.

Mr. Schoepf plans to hire another 1,000 staff by 2008 to boost the production rate to one A380 per week.

Airbus has 139 firm A380 orders from 13 airlines and freight companies, worth $39 billion before any discounts on the plane’s $280 million list price. A new 747 costs up to $211 million before discounts.

The backlog will rise when UPS Inc. finalizes a deal to acquire 10 of the A38O’s freighter versions, with options on 10 more.

The European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., which owns 80 percent of Airbus, says the A380 program will break even at about 250 sales.

During the next 20 years, Airbus sees global demand for 1,250 A380-size behemoths to shuttle passengers among the world’s largest airports, which serve as connecting hubs for flights to less-busy destinations.

More than half the new superjumbos will use just 10 major airports, Airbus forecasts, mainly in Asia. Singapore Airlines Ltd. is scheduled to become the first carrier to operate the A380, in the second half of 2006.

Chicago-based Boeing Co., like Airbus, expects overall air-passenger traffic to increase threefold during the next two decades.

But Boeing forecasts only “a few hundred” sales of very large planes, as travelers reject stopovers in favor of direct service aboard smaller long-range jets — like its fuel-efficient 7E7 Dreamliner, scheduled to enter service in 2008.

“The data shows unquestionably that passengers, when they can, want to fly from wherever they are to wherever they’re going, without having to connect in a hub,” said Boeing spokesman Todd Blecher.

“The A380 is flying into the head wind of reality.”

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