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Airbus to build 650-seater

AIRBUS is poised to launch the world's largest commercial airliner, the A-3xx super-jumbo jet. The go-ahead for the $10bn (pounds 6.2bn) project is expected at the company's board meeting on Wednesday.

"All four consortium members are extremely keen," said a source close to BAe Systems, which currently owns 20 per cent of Airbus. Its consortium partners are Aerospatiale-Matra of France, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace of Germany and Casa of Spain.

Due to the size of the A-3xx project, Airbus is seeking additional partners to take up to 40 per cent of the project work. Westland Aerospace, Saab, Belairbus and Eurocopter have registered their interest, while talks are continuing with Lockheed, Alenia and Bombardier.

The crucial issue is whether the market exists for a super-jumbo. Airbus has been consulting the airlines for some time and the signs have been positive, allowing the project to progress.

United Airlines, Virgin, Singapore Airlines and Japan Airlines are among those that believe a market exists for an aircraft that is significantly larger than the Boeing 747.

"We have had encouraging workshops with the major airlines around the world. We believe we now have their support. If they want it, it will be built. It's as simple as that," said a company source.

The final decision to take orders and start production will be taken next year, allowing the first aircraft, the A-3xx-100, to go into service in 2005. It will carry 550 passengers and will have an operating range of 14,200km. Expected to cost around $230m - about $30m more than the 747 - the A-3xx-100 will provide over 100 more seats than its rival, giving it significantly lower operating costs per passenger.

A stretched aircraft with 650 seats, the A-3xx-200, is expected to be launched in 2007, while the luxurious A-3xx-50R with 481 seats, is expected to emerge some time thereafter.

To house a life-size model of the A-3xx, a four-storey building is being built near the Airbus headquarters in Toulouse. All models will have two decks running the length of the plane, with space for wide aisles, lifts and spiral staircases.

Thanks to its reduced number of seats, the A-3xx-50R will bring the feel of a luxury liner to the skies. Its design includes such features as shops, beauty salon, a medical centre, family seating areas and - a suggestion from Virgin - a casino.

Boeing is not taking the challenge to its most profitable aircraft lying down.

Its plans for the 747, launched in 1969, include a stretched version with higher fuel capacity. The 747x-Stretch will carry 510 passengers and be able to fly up to 18 hours non-stop.

It will cost up to $3bn to develop the 747x-Stretch. Boeing believes that demand for an even larger aircraft, such as the A-3xx, is not sufficient to justify the risks involved and the investment required.

In the 1960s, due to the development costs of the 747, Boeing almost failed before the 747 went on to become a great commercial success.