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Last Updated: Monday, 17 January, 2005, 01:14 GMT
Airbus to unveil giant A380 plane
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

The first prototype of the Airbus A380
As wide as a football pitch is long
Tuesday's official unveiling of the enormous Airbus A380 will be a milestone in aviation history.

The ceremony will mark more than a decade of development of what is widely seen as a triumph of design and engineering.

For consumers, it maps out the future of air travel, or at least the version touted by Airbus.

For Airbus, it cements its position as the world's leading builder of civilian aircraft.

Glorious occasion

In other words, Tuesday will be a day of considerable celebration.

The first prototype of the Airbus A380

Due to enter service in 2006, the A380 will replace the Boeing 747 jumbo as the world's biggest passenger aircraft.

The chief executive of Airbus, Noel Forgeard, will be there to take the credit, along with a string of executives from the four countries that have backed the project, namely the UK, France, Spain and Germany.

A fifth of Airbus is owned by the UK's BAE Systems. The other 80% are controlled by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS), and the A380 is a fundamental part of its operations.

So much so that Mr Forgeard is due to take over at the helm of EADS next year after much infighting between two of its main shareholders, France and Germany, which last month led to the high profile departures of both its co-heads.

The chief executives of airlines which have so far ordered the A380 will also be at Tuesday's ceremony. Up until now, 129 aircraft have been sold.

Controversial subsidies

The ceremony also provides a great deal of political currency for Europe's four most powerful leaders.

Prime Minister Tony Blair will be there, as will President Jacques Chirac, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso will also attend.

The first prototype of the Airbus A380 observed by plane spotters
Will the A380 provide luxury for the few, or be a coach for families on holiday?

In fact, the presence of the politicians is far from spurious. Without government assistance, the A380 would probably never have been built.

Billions of euros have been handed over in "launch aid loans" in recent years - under generous repayment terms - to assist Airbus's development of the A380.

This has angered the US, which is home to rival aerospace giant Boeing.

Until last week, the US had threatened to take the European Union (EU) to the World Trade Organisation over what it claimed were illegal subsidies. The EU had responded to the threat by claiming that the US was itself paying illegal subsidies to Boeing.

But in the end, the two agreed to bilateral talks and removed their threats, which could have brought about one of the biggest and costliest disputes at the World Trade Organisation this decade.


But what about the plane itself? Well, there has been so much coverage of every step of its development that there is very little new to say.

The first prototype of the Airbus A380
The A380 is capable of carrying 800 passengers

It is large. Very large, in fact.

For months, various media have been shouting about how its wingspan is almost as wide as the length of a football pitch. This we understand.

More cryptic; its length is apparently similar to that of two blue whales, a creature rarely seen by anyone, but we still get the picture.

But the main point about this super tanker-sized aeroplane is that it can fit up to 840 people into its generous hull - although a more typical seating arrangement with a large first class and business class will seat about 555 passengers.

This, Airbus insists, will change forever the market for long-haul flights.

But even if the aerospace giant is right in its assertion that tomorrow's long distance air travel will be from hub to hub - or large airports that can cope with the A380's size, as opposed to direct long-haul flights between smaller airports - there are no guarantees that it will be able to recoup the $12bn invested in the aircraft.

Similar financial concerns could play on the mind of airlines which have ordered the aircraft.

There are real concerns that rather than being a giant luxury transporter that brings greater comforts to customers, the A380 might be used as a 'cattle-class' transporter for the masses by airlines struggling to recoup their costs.

Comparison of Boeing 747 and Airbus A380
Typical 416 (max 524)
Cruising speed:
0.855 Mach
Flight range:

Typical 555 (max 840)
Cruising speed:
0.85 Mach
Flight range:


See how the Airbus could transform travel

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