Ready for take-off: Airbus reveals the world's first 'superjumbo' passenger jet

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The Independent Online

Four national leaders, 5,000 other dignitaries and at least two billionaires will stand before a curtain measuring twice the length of a football pitch in southern France at 10am tomorrow. After a spectacular sound and light show, the fabric barrier in the cavernous Jean-Luc Lagardère hangar will be hauled back to reveal MSN001 - the first production model of the Airbus A380, the "superjumbo".

From the curtain concealing it to its cabin capable of holding as many as 850 people, everything about the A380 is off the scale of previous achievements in passenger flight.

If its creators are to be believed, the four-engined, double-decker pride of European aviation will fly more people over a greater distance in greater comfort, causing less pollution and at a lower cost than any aircraft on the planet.

The aim of this behemoth is to cause nothing less than the sort of revolution in air travel that the original jumbo jet, the Boeing 747, caused 35 years ago. As the chief spokesman of Airbus put it yesterday: "What we are revealing is the largest, newest, best and most important aircraft in our history."

MSN001, which will be revealed with a new Airbus logo and colour scheme, is the first of a hoped-for 1,250 superjumbos to be built over the next 20 years at 15 sites in four partner countries - Britain, France, Germany and Spain.

Its vast size means that, in its standard three-class configuration of 555 seats, previously unheard-of luxuries such as private cabins, showers, boutique shops and even gyms, fountains and casinos can be offered to first-class and business passengers.

For economy passengers, self-service food counters and bars could replace the trolleys with their foil-packaged readymeals and warm lager.

But as they sip cocktails at the post-unveiling buffet, Tony Blair, President Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, will be surrounded by a sense of trepidation; the £5.6bn cost of the A380, including a hefty slab of public subsidy, could prove a costly gamble in the battle for supremacy in the skies between Europe and America.

M. Chirac, at least, is said to be proud that European know-how has overtaken that of America to produce the world's most advanced passenger jet.

But at what cost? Airbus admitted last month that its spending on the A380 has overrun by £765m and its new jet will weigh three tons more than its target weight of 300 tons.

The engineers do not even know yet whether it will fly. The first test flight is not scheduled until March.

Although heavier, longer and more expensive than Boeing's 747, the A380 has 50 per cent more floor space, makes half the take-off noise and can fly 1,000 miles further. Its fuel consumption per passenger is more efficient than most family hatchbacks.

Singapore Airlines is due to make the first commercial flight from Singapore to Heathrow next year.

The problem for Airbus, which already has 149 orders for the plane from 14 carriers, is economic. It is betting that airlines will want to use a jet whose size means airports are having to make alterations costing millions.

Heathrow, which estimates that one in every eight flights leaving its runways by 2016 will be an A380, is spending £450m on remodelling its taxiways, gates and baggage facilities to cope. Even by the end of the decade, only 60 airports will be able to host the A380.

The superjumbo's detractors argue that passengers will be put off by the endless waiting to embark and disembark from the four-aisle jets. Gordon Bethune, the chief executive of Continental Airlines, said: "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?"

At the heart of this argument is the differing strategies of Airbus and its rival, Boeing. The Seattle company believes the days of the jumbo are over and that the future lies in smaller aircraft capable of flying "point to point". To this end, Boeing has developed its 7E7 "Dreamliner" which has a capacity of just 250 but will fly further and faster than other aircraft.

The American producer claims that the market for the A380 will be just "a few hundred" jets rather than the 1,650 predicted in Toulouse. Todd Blecher of Boeing said: "Passengers want to fly from wherever they are to wherever they're going without having to connect in a hub. The A380 is flying into the headwind of reality." Airbus shrugs off such claims. The superjumbo will be up to 20 per cent cheaper to fly per passenger than other jets.With such economies of scale, the company argues that its pride and joy cannot fail.