- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

The world’s largest passenger airplane — which dwarfs the Boeing 747 — made its Washington debut when an Airbus A380 “superjumbo” landed at Washington Dulles International Airport late Sunday.

Not since the retired Concorde supersonic jetliner touched down in the U.S. almost four decades ago has a new plane been so eagerly anticipated within the industry and by the public.

“It’s kind of like a rock star — everybody wants to see it and have a piece of it,” said Airbus spokesman Clay McConnell of the long-awaited and occasionally troubled aircraft.

The press yesterday was given a pre-dawn tour of the massive jetliner, which was parked on the Dulles tarmac next to a United Airlines Boeing 747 — previously the world’s largest passenger airliner.

The plane was scheduled to return to Germany last night.

The double-decker aircraft made its initial U.S. appearance March 19 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. Since then, Europe’s Airbus, in partnership with the German airline Lufthansa, has taken the A380 on additional demonstration flights to Chicago, Hong Kong and Frankfurt. The plane arrived at Dulles from Frankfurt Sunday with about 500 passengers — mostly Airbus and Lufthansa employees.

The plane can carry more than 800 passengers in an all-coach seating configuration, although most airlines are expected to configure cabin seating with large first- and business-class sections that would cap the number of seats at about 550.

Singapore Airlines, which has ordered 19 of the planes, is scheduled to be the first airline to use the A380 for commercial flights in the fall.

Management and financial troubles at Airbus delayed production of the A380 by two years, erasing more than $6.6 billion from profit forecasts and eroding investor confidence.

The delay caused the A380’s two biggest potential customers, UPS and FedEx, to cancel orders of 10 planes each in recent months, leaving the freighter version of the plane in doubt.

Airbus is seeking to recoup its losses by cutting 10,000 jobs and spinning off or closing six of its European manufacturing plants.

The company says it has more than 150 firm orders from 14 customers. Emirates airlines, the national carrier of the United Arab Emirates, has ordered the most planes: 43.

But those figures are far short of the 450 planes it must sell to turn a profit on the A380, airline analyst Darryl Jenkins said.

“They need to get out and beat the bushes to sell it,” Mr. Jenkins said. “It’s going to be a long time before this plane is profitable.”

Airbus has not received any orders for the new plane from U.S. flagged air carriers.

Airline consultant Mike Boyd, president of the Boyd Group, says the A380’s size and its design as a long-haul carrier give it a limited global market.

“It’s a wonderful plane, and they’ll sell 350 or 400 planes, but that’s about it, and I’m not sure if that’s enough” to make the A380 profitable, he said. “They set out to build the next generation Boeing 747, and they did. Airbus says it built the plane of tomorrow, but what it really did was build the plane of yesterday.”

The company hopes the A380’s U.S. appearances this month will help boost investor and public confidence.

“It’s been a really successful” week, Mr. McConnell said. “I hate to sound giddy, but — I’m giddy.”

The A380, with a maximum takeoff weight of 617 tons, is the largest civil aircraft ever built. The aircraft’s two passenger decks have a total area of 5,920 square feet — about 50 percent more space than the Boeing 747-400.

The A380, powered by four engines, burns about one gallon of fuel per passenger seat every 80 miles and can fly about 8,000 nautical miles.

The aircraft, with wings the length of a football field, sells for about $300 million.

Despite the plane’s monumental size, it can operate on runways and taxiways capable of handling Boeing 747s.

Pilots say the planes handle similarly to smaller Airbus models, and have compared its agility to that of a sports car.

“These days [pilots] spend less and less time manipulating the airplane. Pilots don’t have white scarves and leather helmets anymore,” said Larry Rockliff, vice president of training for Airbus. “So the consequence of that is, if you’re ever in a predicament where you have to manipulate the airplane, and you don’t have the exposure to it on a regular basis, it’s critical that it’s going to be forgiving. And we’ve achieved that.”

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