- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2007

NEW YORK (AP) — The latest jetliner to claim the title of world’s biggest passenger aircraft completed its inaugural flight to the United States yesterday, flying on football field-length wings and a prayer that airlines will want to shell out $300 million to buy the behemoth double-decker jet.

The four-engine Airbus A380 descended from a sunny sky and touched down at John F. Kennedy International Airport at 12:10 p.m., to the cheers of onlookers. As the plane made its way toward the terminal, a pilot waved an American flag. Minutes later, a separate A380 arrived in Los Angeles, with just a crew and no passengers.

The first U.S. flights are a chance for plane builder Airbus and Lufthansa German Airlines to show off the jewel of Airbus’ offerings to potential American buyers and to the airports they hope to turn into flight bases for the jet.

The 239-foot-long jet can seat as many as 550 passengers, cruise at 560 mph and fly about 8,000 nautical miles without stopping for fuel.

Despite the plane’s impressive statistics, Airbus has yet to sell any of the planes to U.S. carriers. The A380 comes with a price tag of $300 million, although that figure varies depending on the airline’s order, said John Leahy, chief of operations for Airbus.

Mr. Leahy called the A380 the flagship jetliner for the 21st century, much like the Boeing 747 was in the last century. Airbus has about 160 global orders from 15 airlines for the new plane, which has made tests flights in Europe and to Asia.

Waiting in the wings, however, is Boeing Co., which now has competitors to the A380 in early production.

The U.S. flight marked one of the highest-profile maiden trans-Atlantic voyages since 1969, when the Concorde, the world’s first and only commercial supersonic transport, arrived at JFK from London. The European-made Concorde was retired from British and French service in 2005.

Airbus has been beset by management and financial problems, including a two-year delay of the A380 that wiped out more than $6.61 billion in forecast profits. The flight is a chance to prove that the plane will be ready when the first deliveries are made in October.

Airbus is seeking to recoup its losses by cutting 10,000 jobs and spinning off or closing six of its European manufacturing plants. Louis Gallois, co-chief executive of parent company European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., said Airbus has endured “the worst year” in its history.

Lufthansa’s chief pilot Juergen Raps, who flew the A380 to New York, said that despite the jet’s size, it was nimble and responsive.

“If I were to compare it to driving, you would think this would be like driving a truck or a bus,” he said inside the plane’s cockpit. “It’s like driving a Ferrari.”

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