Europe's giant of the sky lands at Heathrow

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The Independent Online

Bigger than a jumbo jet, the future of air travel flew into Britain yesterday, showing off its gigantic proportions and prompting concern about its impact on climate change.

The product of a grand European alliance, the Airbus A380, touched down at a specially reinforced runway at Heathrow at 1.20pm with a Union Flag fluttering from the cockpit.

Among waiting dignitaries, Gordon Brown hailed the four-nation aeroplane as an example of "Europe at its best" and a triumph of British engineering.

With a wingspan of 79m, the Airbus A380 is by far and away the world's biggest plane. It can fly further, more cheaply and is sometimes more green than a Boeing 747, seating up to 840 economy passengers compared with a jumbo's 416, though most airlines favour the less environmentally friendly seating of 480.

Its development opens the era of superjumbo planes capable of matching the 21st century's rapacious desire for travel, for business and pleasure. It also poses fresh questions about whether this will lead to more passengers flying round the world in bigger jets, contributing to aviation emissions that threaten catastrophic and irreversible global warming.

Airlines are expected to pack the A380's decks with bars, lounges, beauty salons and duty-free shops, giving more of the experience of a cruise ship than a cramped jet. The plane was developed and assembled in Toulouse as part of the £10bn European Airbus consortium. Components came from four countries, Germany, Spain, France and Britain.

Flying into the UK from the Berlin Air Show, the British test pilot Captain Ed Strongman had detoured over two Airbus UK plants, Filton in Bristol and Broughton in north Wales, where the plane's wings are made. His aircraft glided to a halt at Heathrow's £105m pier six at Terminal 3, which has been adapted to cope with 2,000 passengers a day from the twin-deck plane.

Airport workers stopped work to applaud the arrival. A relieved Airbus UK managing director, Ian Gray, said: "I'm very pleased that our iconic performer has lived up to its big billing."

Alongside the Chancellor of the Exchequer were the heads of some of the 16 airlines that have ordered the aircraft, which will go into service in December. Mr Brown declared: "This is a great day for London, a great day for Britain and British manufacturing, and a great day for European co-operation ."

He congratulated Rolls-Royce, whose engines powered the A380, for producing, some of the "quietest and cleanest engines" ever made. Airbus says the A380 will produce 12 per cent fewer emissions per passenger than a jumbo jet.

Environmentalists warned that the Airbus still had the capacity to worsen climate change by encouraging air travel.

Richard Dyer, of Friends of the Earth, said: "If you said we are not going to increase the amount of people who fly, and they all fly on Airbus A380s, it would reduce emissions. Unfortunately this is part of a trend in air travel; a plane that is a bit cleaner and more efficient comes along every 30 years."