Among the hordes of spectators watching the world's largest passenger plane take flight was one holding a banner that read: "Fly Baby, Fly...

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BLAGNAC, France — Among the hordes of spectators watching the world’s largest passenger plane take flight was one holding a banner that read: “Fly Baby, Fly.”

And, fly it did. The question now is: Will it sell?

After its first test flight yesterday, the Airbus A380 touched down with puffs of smoke from its 22 outsize wheels, the screech of rubber on asphalt drowned by cheering from an estimated 30,000 onlookers around Blagnac’s airport.

“There is nothing comparable to this in the universe,” said Jean-Claude Antoine, 60, a retired plumber, perched on a hill overlooking the airstrip outside Toulouse, the same tarmac where the now-retired supersonic Concorde embarked on its own maiden voyage 36 years ago.

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The A380’s four-hour sortie past the snowcapped Pyrenees removed any doubt that the behemoth capable of carrying as many as 840 passengers is airworthy. But it did little to persuade skeptics, led by U.S. rival Boeing, that the plane will prove profitable.

Flying the plane was as easy as “riding a bicycle,” test pilot Jacques Rosay said. Engineer Fernando Alonso said the crew enjoyed an “extremely comfortable” flight.


How the A380 measures up



• The plane is 51 feet wider, 17 feet taller, 10 feet longer and 107 tons heavier than the Boeing 747.

The Airbus double-decker is the length of eight London buses and has enough room on its massive wings to park 70 cars.

• At takeoff, the four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engines will generate as much thrust as 3,500 cars.

The plane has 16 passenger doors and escape slides on both decks, with the upper slides standing 26 feet high.

Source: Airbus, industry Web site

Reuters


“Now shareholders can sleep better at night,” chief flight engineer Gerard Desbois added.

But the hats stayed on in Seattle. The superjumbo is “a very large airplane for a very small market,” Boeing spokesman Jim Condelles said.

“First flights are always very interesting and exciting. It’s an engineering accomplishment that Airbus should be very proud of,” he said. “We just don’t see a market for 1,250 of these airplanes over the next 20 years.”

Condelles was referring to Airbus’ global market forecast for very large jets. Boeing sees demand for just 400 jets with 450 seats or more.

If Airbus is right, it could enjoy a near-monopoly in that market while Boeing scrambles to produce a competitor.

But some industry experts think Airbus is more likely to end up with egg on its face after spending $13 billion over 11 years developing the A380.

“Airbus is being incredibly optimistic,” said Frank Werner, an airline-management specialist at Fordham University’s business school in New York. “I don’t think they’re going to sell enough planes in a short enough time to make it financially viable.”

CHRISTOPHE ENA / AP

The crew of the Airbus A380 disembarks from the world’s largest passenger plane yesterday after a four-hour flight past the French Pyrenees.

Airbus has orders for 154 superjumbos and has said it needs 100 more to recover its investment.

But the weak dollar — the currency in which passenger planes are sold — and rumors of heavy discounts on the A380’s $282 million sticker price have fueled reports that the real break-even point may be higher.

There are also fears that sales could suffer from decisions by big airports like Atlanta not to strengthen runways and put in the bigger boarding gates needed to handle the A380. But others — including San Francisco and New York — are preparing for the huge plane, and Werner said he expected holdouts to follow suit when airlines begin flying the superjumbo in mid-2006.

Airbus critics also say its focus on the A380 has led it to neglect the midsize market, where its planned A350 is to enter service in 2010 — two years after Boeing’s 787. Airlines have ordered or made commitments for 237 of the new Boeing jet so far.

Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard plays down the 787’s development lead, saying the battle for the market in smaller planes will be over 20 years, not two.

Whatever the criticism, the A380 launch was a major advertisement for Airbus’ technological prowess and an emblem for its new status as the world’s largest aircraft maker.

The jet carried 22 tons of test instruments plus extra ballast to increase its total takeoff weight to 464 tons, about 75 percent of its maximum authorized takeoff weight for commercial flights but already a new record for a civil airliner.

While the plane can carry 840 passengers, airlines are planning seating that will limit loads to about 550 people.