The smooth landing of the A380 super-jumbo Airbus at Heathrow airport yesterday brought a double dose of cheer in two areas - manufacturing and Europe - where much of the news this season has been gloomy. The world's largest passenger plane, with 555 seats, made a detour to fly over the two British plants that designed and made its wings. The British contribution to this aircraft is proof that manufacturing in this country lives on, even if car-making is contracting.
The completion of the A380 also gainsays the pervasive doom-mongering about the European Union. Airbus is one of the EU's great successes. That the consortium has brought this ambitious project to fruition shows that the sometimes quarrelsome Europeans are capable of impressive co-operation when they put their minds to it. For all the logistical problems of assembling components in so many countries so far apart, Airbus has also proved itself competitive. So far, 16 firms have placed orders, including Virgin Atlantic.
So yesterday was a good day for Britain and for Europe. But this does not mean that the difficulties - past or future - should be underestimated. The A380 was late and over budget. It is an enormous flying machine, which will start with around 500 passengers, but could in time routinely transport more than 800. Although the plane is said to have passed all its safety and evacuation tests with flying colours, its size and capacity may deter some potential passengers. The verdict of the consumer market, as opposed to that of the airline companies, remains to be heard.
Similarly, while the commercial attraction of such a huge plane to the airlines is clear, the environmental impact remains a matter of controversy. The plane's advocates argue that it not only makes financial sense to fly more people in a single aircraft but environmental sense, too. Their view is that one single modern plane is quieter and less polluting than the several smaller planes that would be needed to carry equivalent numbers.
Against that, however, must be set the need for the airlines to justify their investment by filling these giant planes. This suggests that more and more people will be encouraged to fly, and that ticket prices will remain comparatively low or even fall. The downside of mass air travel is already well known. A tax on airline fuel would go some way towards balancing the respective costs to the passenger and the environment. So long as some countries oppose such a tax, however, it is not a realistic proposition. With the Airbus super-jumbo now safely airborne, the introduction of such a levy should be high on Britain's list for the EU's next collaborative projects.