Airbus throws glitzy party for A380 superjumbo
Planemaker Airbus threw a spectacular party Tuesday for the world's largest airliner, the A380 -- overweight, overbudget and yet to fly, but hailed by its makers as a major European feat that will reshape aviation.
French President Jacques Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero watched as Airbus offered a first glimpse of the twin-deck jetliner in new house colors.
"Under the name of Airbus, Europe has written one of the most beautiful pages of its history," Airbus chief Noel Forgeard told 5,000 guests seated in the world's largest aircraft hangar.
The message will not be lost on Boeing, whose 747 jumbo flies as the world's only passenger double-decker for now, and whose allies privately mock Forgeard's A380 as "Noel's Ark."
The mammoth A380 has room for 70 cars to park on its wings and looks rather like the hump-backed Boeing 747 but with the top section stretching all the way back to the tail.
Airlines have committed almost $40 billion to buying the 555-seat double-decker superjumbo, expecting it to lower operating costs and boost profits flattened by high oil prices and a slowdown in global aviation and tourism since 2001.
"It's also a bit of a coming out party for an airlines industry coming out of a very, very hard time after 9/11."
Billed by Blair as a symbol of European cooperation, the plane boasts a more commercial future than the last European aviation project to get as much publicity -- the Anglo-French Concorde. The 1960s project gave birth to a plane as sleek and uneconomical as the A380 is obese yet potentially profitable.
Forgeard predicted Airbus would sell 700 to 750 of the planes, which cost $260 million to buy and boast a 15 percent gain in costs per seat-mile compared to the Boeing 747-400.
It already has 149 orders or commitments from 14 airlines for the aircraft which is due to take its first test flight in early April. It is due to enter service in 2006.
Forgeard confirmed talks to sell A380 planes to China and said he was confident of a deal by Easter, or late March.
Deutsche Lufthansa chief Wolfgang Mayrhuber said he expected the airline to raise its order for 15 planes.
The plane is costing Airbus and its shareholders EADS, the European aerospace group, and BAE Systems some 12 billion euros to develop including 1.45 billion euros of cost overruns linked in part to efforts to keep its weight down.
"We are about five tons over the original spec weight but that is less than 1 percent of the 560 tons maximum take-off 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.
Weight and costs have, however, been a nagging concern for investors in parent EADS, whose shares eased 2.2 percent to 23.2 euros Tuesday after a recent strong rally.
Airports are also having to spend many millions of dollars to accommodate the plane and its massive wingspan over taxiways.
Leahy, the suave American sales chief who has outsold arch rival Boeing in the past two years to seize leadership of the commercial jet industry, said the A380 will make the 747 obsolete just as the legendary jumbo jet had pushed older models to the graveyard when it took to the skies 35 years ago.
Boeing has already dismissed that suggestion, saying the A380 will lag sales of the original jumbo jet for years.
Airlines will be able to configure the plane according to the service they want to sell, with some opting for an Upstairs-Downstairs feel with posh frills on the upper deck.
Others will be able to pack more than 800 passengers in an all-economy layout on both decks for cheap charter flights.
Virgin Atlantic will offer a beauty therapist area, a gym, a casino and double beds.