Air France A380 set for first transatlantic flight

An Air France A380, the world's largest civilian airliner, sets off Friday on its first flight across the Atlantic despite production and delivery delays still plaguing its manufacturer Airbus.

The flight will leave Paris shortly before noon, with 538 passengers aboard, and is scheduled to arrive in New York just after 1300 local time.

Among those on board will be 380 aviation buffs who bid for places in an auction arranged by Air France to benefit children-oriented humanitarian programs. The total amount raised was not disclosed.

Air France will become the first European carrier to fly the A380, the pride of Airbus and its parent company EADS. The aircraft is already in use by Singapore Airlines, Gulf-based Emirates and Qantas of Australia.

Regular Air France commercial flights across the Atlantic are to begin on November 23. With its fleet of 12 A380s Air France will also serve Johannesburg, starting in February, and then Tokyo.

But the commercial success of the A380, having suffered major production and delivery delays, has yet to be secured.

"The A380 programme remains a source of concern," said EADS chief executive Louis Gallois.

Progress to date has been "slower than planned" and the programme "has still not stabilised" this year.

The manufacturer delivered its 20th A380, to Air France at the end of October, two years after the aircraft's first commercial flight.

Since October 2007, 10 A380s have been delivered to Singapore Airlines, five to Emirates and four to Qantas.

Airbus is hoping to deliver 13 superjumbos this year but has acknowledged that one or two might not be ready until early next year.

In all, 17 companies, including British Airways, Virgin and Lufthansa, have ordered a total of 202 A380s.

But Airbus is currently facing requests for delivery postponements from clients hard-hit by a recent downturn in air travel and who may not be ready to spend 327 million dollars (220 million euros) for a plane they are not sure of being able to fill with passengers.

Production problems, notably with electric cabling that were attributed to poor coordination between French and German manufacturing sites, also bedevilled the A380 project in earlier stages.

Air France, which has acquired Dutch carrier KLM, has itself been struggling with the global slide in passenger demand. The combined company, Europe's biggest by revenue, reported a loss of 147 million euros (220 million dollars) in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

Air France-KLM had registered a profit of 27 million euros in the same July-September period last year. The Franco-Dutch airline also announced cumulative losses over six months at 573 million euros.

Air France-KLM said earlier this month that passenger numbers had dropped for a 10th month running in October, falling by 4.1 percent on a 12-month comparison, while cargo activity plunged 19.1 percent over the same period.

The figures were worse than in September, when passenger traffic dropped by a yearly 3.7 percent and cargo traffic fell 17.2 percent.

Air France has also launched a voluntary redundancy scheme to shed up to 1,700 jobs next year.

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