Airbus superjumbo unveiled

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The Independent Online

The world's biggest passenger plane was unveiled for the first time today - with more riding on it than just the 550 passengers the aircraft can accommodate.

The world's biggest passenger plane was unveiled for the first time today - with more riding on it than just the 550 passengers the aircraft can accommodate.

The success of the massive four-engined Airbus A380 superjumbo, whose wings are built in the UK, is vital for the British and European aerospace industries.

As around 5,000 guests, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, gathered to watch today's unveiling of the double-decker plane in Toulouse, Airbus was hoping that the massive £5.6 billion investment in the aircraft would pay off.

The company has already warned that research and development costs could rise by as much as £760 million for the plane which will have its first commercial passenger flight next year.

And although there are already 149 firm orders for the plane, Airbus, in which UK firm BAE Systems has a 20% stake, needs even more interest from airlines.

One definite customer is Sir Richard Branson's airline, Virgin Atlantic. But Virgin has put back its order for six planes to 2008 because of various concerns, not least the slowness of some airports to start work to accommodate the giant aircraft.

One airport getting on with its A380 facilities is Heathrow in west London which promises to be the main airport for the huge new aircraft. Heathrow will welcome its first A380 in summer 2006 and by 2016 as many as one in eight planes at the airport could be A380s.

Among those represented at Toulouse today were staff of Airbus UK's facility at Broughton in North Wales, where the wings are made, and officials from aero engine giant Rolls-Royce, whose Trent 900 engines will power the plane being displayed today.

Capable of a range of more than 9,000 miles, the A380 represents the biggest advance in passenger aircraft since the launch of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet in the 1970s.

And with Concorde now retired from passenger service, airlines are likely to make the A380 their flagship plane.

While noise and environmental groups have complained about the new plane, Airbus boasts that the A380 is, in fact, far less noisy than the Boeing 747 and requires less distance in which to take off and land.

In producing the A380, Airbus has put its money where its mouth is, having repeatedly declared that ultra-large passenger aircraft will be increasingly necessary in future years.

This view is not shared by big American planemaking rival Boeing which has long abandoned its own superjumbo plans and which believes smaller planes such as its 7E7 Dreamliner are the answer.

With longer versions of the A380 planned, the plane's capacity could soar to more than 800. Singapore Airlines, which will be the first carrier to operate the superjumbo, is to begin with a configuration that will seat around 500 people.

With 50% more floor space than a Boeing 747, the A380 could, if airlines wish, contain such amenities as bars, gymnasiums, shops and even casinos.

With Mr Blair at today's launch were French President Jacques Chirac, Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroder and Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Mr Blair hailed the Airbus as an example of European co-operation at its best.

The Prime Minister said he felt "tremendous pride" in the way countless countries had worked together on the project.

He said it was a symbol of economic strength, technological innovation and a confidence that Europe could "compete and win" in the global market.

He said: "It is British industry working at its best, it is European co-operation working at its best."

He added: "We should be proud of what has been achieved for what it represents today and for what it means in the future."