Its wings stretch nearly the length of a football field, about 50 feet longer than any plane in the air today. Nose to tail it is longer than two blue whales. Inside the cabin, it...
TOULOUSE, France — Its wings stretch nearly the length of a football field, about 50 feet longer than any plane in the air today. Nose to tail it is longer than two blue whales. Inside the cabin, it has room for at least 550 passengers — and as many as 1,000.
The world’s largest commercial airplane, the Airbus A380, sits in a factory in southwestern France, awaiting its unveiling Tuesday. Then in February or March, the plane faces a critical flight test that Airbus hopes will answer naysayers’ questions about the million-pound behemoth. Safety experts have raised concerns about how airlines will be able to evacuate so many passengers in an emergency. Pilots worry whether runways are wide enough to accommodate the huge plane in the event of an engine failure. Airports from Washington’s Dulles to Singapore’s Changi are spending millions of dollars to strengthen taxiways and build double-decker jet bridges for quick boarding to avoid cramped terminals.
The A380 poses a profound threat to Boeing’s crown jewel, the 747, which has reigned as the largest passenger plane for the past 30 years. It symbolizes the latest blow to Boeing’s once-predominant position in aircraft manufacturing. Airbus, which receives funding from four European countries, surpassed Boeing in 2003 to become the world’s biggest maker of commercial airplanes.
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The superjumbo, already $2 billion over its $10 billion development budget, offers luxury options never enjoyed aboard a commercial airliner. Passengers will be greeted on the lower deck not by a cramped galley but by a wide staircase to the upper level where first- and business-class passengers will be seated. Each first-class seat will fold open into a bed stretching the depth of two or three rows of coach. On the lower deck, the coach section will look similar to airlines today, with just an extra inch of width in each seat. Airbus envisions that airlines will use the ample space aboard the long-haul plane for cocktail lounges, waterfall fountains and private suites that serve as in-air bedrooms and double as business meeting areas.
The Airbus A380 is “the new modern airplane of the future,” said John Leahy, an American who is Airbus’ executive vice president for customer affairs. “Just like the 747 — it changed the way we flew so we could cross oceans and it gave us more space. [The A380] will be more the mentality of a cruise ship … to get up, have a drink, visit with some friends.”
But skeptics doubt that many airlines will invest in costly luxuries. Instead, they say, the carriers will likely want to cram as many passengers aboard as possible to maximize profit.
Several U.S. airline executives and consultants said the plane’s size will result in passengers feeling like cattle — first crammed into an airport terminal and then slowly loaded onto the plane. “What’s in it for me to sit on an airplane with 500 other people, wait for my bags with 500 other people, check in with 500 other people?” Gordon Bethune, then chief executive of Continental Airlines, asked a travel industry group last year; Bethune, a former Boeing executive, retired as Continental CEO on Dec. 31.
Airbus is convinced that the huge plane is the right model for increasingly congested skies and shifting patterns of global wealth. As crowded international hubs begin to limit the number of flights from each carrier, Airbus believes the A380 — with 144 more seats than the 747 — will be regarded as the more profitable aircraft.
“There will be quite a few more people flying than today,” Leahy said. “We can’t just keep putting people into more and more airplanes.”
Airbus envisions vast increases in air travel in Asia and the Middle East, with much slower growth in the United States. The company hopes to sell more than half of its superjumbos to airlines in developing nations in Asia, where a growing middle class doesn’t fly very much now but increasingly has the financial means to do so. Company executives point to figures that show China’s aviation industry is rapidly expanding, with an expected growth of 8.5 percent annually over the next several years.
By contrast, Americans fly more often per capita than any other travelers in the world, but growth in passenger traffic has largely matured at a 2.7 percent annual rate. Although many foreign carriers plan to fly the huge plane into some U.S. airports, Airbus does not expect early orders for the $250 million planes from financially struggling U.S. carriers. The cargo company FedEx is the American exception. It has ordered 10 cargo versions.
Boeing has the opposite view of the future of commercial aviation and said it has no plans to develop a superjumbo to compete with the Airbus A380. Although it once considered jointly building a giant plane with Airbus, the company now says it sees no profit and no market for such a plane. The A380 “just doesn’t make sense,” said Randy Baseler, Boeing’s commercial airplane vice president for marketing. “We know airplane sizes are going down.”
Several U.S. aviation analysts agree that Airbus may have difficulty turning a profit on the huge plane. The company has sold the plane at reported discounts of 35 percent to 40 percent, said Frost & Sullivan, which means it would have to sell 325 planes to break even. Airbus said it needs to sell 250 planes for the project’s success.
Airbus contends that its A380 is arriving at an ideal time — just as airlines will be looking to replace their aging Boeing 747s. By offering more room and greater luxury than the 747, the A380 will shake up the entire market for large aircraft, according to one of the early architects. “It’s like the atomic bomb,” said Philippe Jarry, senior vice president of product strategy.
Since the top-flight amenities will largely be found in first class, coach passengers — with their one extra inch in seat width and no benefit in leg room — may not recognize the plane’s revolutionary aspects. Airbus says, however, that fares for the A380 should be attractive because its fuel-efficient engines will reduce operating costs.
Airbus has sold 139 of the A380s, mostly to government-backed airlines. Its largest customer is Emirates, a rapidly expanding state-owned carrier based in Dubai. The United Arab Emirates has an ambitious goal to make Dubai into a global tourism and transportation hub.
The carrier plans to outfit 31 of its more than 40 megaplanes on order with first-class sections that offer “in-air bedrooms” that can be closed off from the rest of the cabin. The suites will each come with a minibar, a closet and a foot rest that can be turned into a second chair for a business meeting. The cabin will be outfitted with high-tech lighting to help adjust passengers’ body clocks to cut down on jet lag.
“It will be like kids with new toys,” said Tim Clark, chief director of Emirates. “People will go out of their way to fly on these planes.”