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Last Updated: Tuesday, 18 January 2005, 15:59 GMT
Giant plane a testimony to 'old Europe'
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter in Toulouse, France

At last the curtains have been raised to reveal the giant Airbus A380 aircraft, a plane that promises to revolutionise air travel and help contribute to a doubling or perhaps even trebling of the number of people flying over the next two decades.

The historic moment was marked with a rather grand ceremony at Airbus headquarters near Toulouse.

Airbus A380 unveiled in Toulouse
Hundreds of journalists crowded the first Airbus A380

It was reminiscent of opening ceremonies for Olympic Games, complete with dancers resembling angels, floating through blue smoke clouds; towering over them a tall, god-like figure, exhorting the audience to "remind yourself that everything is possible".

And then there were the four dancers representing the four European nations that are backing the A380 project, each of them displaying the names of some of their greatest creative minds: Einstein, Goethe, Goya, Gaudi, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare and the Beatles.

But this was more than just brilliance by association: "It is a truly magnificent human endeavour," declared France's President Jacques Chirac.

With an 80-metre wing span, the A380 is the largest civilian aircraft ever built. "Now we see this final product and we are amazed," said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. "It is simply stunning."

Old Europe strikes back

For Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard it was a moment to behold, and not to be modest: "Under the name Airbus, Europe has written one of its most beautiful pages of its history."

High-level corporate battles - fought both internally among Airbus executives vying for position and externally against competitor Boeing - would have to wait for another day.

Virgin Atlantic's Sir Richard Branson and Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber
Virgin's Branson and Lufthansa's Mayrhuber have high hopes for the A380

And yet, the trade spat between the European Union and the United States did rear its ugly head.

The US insists the repayable launch aid stumped up by Airbus's four backers - France, Germany, the UK and Spain - is an illegal subsidy. The Europeans complain about Washington's payments to Boeing.

For German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Tuesday's ceremony was too good an opportunity to miss for a slight dig at the US.

"There is the tradition of good old Europe that has made this possible," he said defiantly, sounding almost triumphant as he deliberately redefined the phrase previously used by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

And Mr Schroeder went further, making it clear that Europe would continue backing Airbus, within the framework of international trade rules.

"We have done that in the past, we are doing it now, and we will do so in the future," he said.

Backslapping executives

But the endorsements by the four heads of government and state were not the only reasons why Mr Forgeard was happy.

He was also joined by the heads of the 14 airlines that have placed firm orders for the A380.

Flanked by some of the world's most powerful air industry chief executives, there was no end to the mutual backslapping.

"We shall make a family photo," Mr Forgeard declared as he lined up for the unique picture. "Something like this will never happen again."

Each and everyone of the executives was keen to make his mark on this extraordinary day.

Predictably, Virgin Atlantic chairman Sir Richard Branson, the only one of them not wearing a tie, outdid them all with the most outlandish performance.

Passengers on Virgin's A380s, he declared, would be able to go to the gym or use the aeroplane's beauty parlour. There would be large bars, a casino and even a few double-beds, he said, quipping about there being "two ways of getting lucky" on a Virgin A380 flight.

Lufthansa's chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber was more sober in his praise for the aircraft, insisting its arrival would be good news for Lufthansa's customers, its shareholders and the environment.

Jolly green giant

Indeed, the A380 aircraft was widely hailed as an environmentally friendly aircraft.

Airbus chief executive Noel Forgeard
Noel Forgeard revelled in the A380 launch

Airbus says the aeroplane burns 12% less fuel than its competitor, the Boeing 747, largely due to its wing design and its use of lightweight composite materials.

Again the politicians were prepared to stick their neck to back the Airbus promise.

"The A380 is the only commercial plane designed from the outset to be environmentally friendly", said Mr Blair. "It consumes less than three litres of fuel per passengers over 100km, a rate comparable to a modern diesel car."

The A380 is also supposed to be a quiet aircraft, which will meet ever tougher noise pollution requirements.

"London Heathrow has the most stringent noise regulation in the world," said Singapore Airlines chief executive Chew Choon Seng. "This aircraft is able to meet those requirements."

With all the hype, though, it is easy to forget that the politicians and chief executives are talking about a prototype aircraft.

The A380 is a plane that has never left the runway. Its first flight is due to take place this spring, and it should go into commercial service in 2006.

The new Airbus is a big plane; but big questions about its future have not yet been answered.

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