There were acrobats from the Cirque du Soleil, a mechanical objet d'art that looked like a mad inventor's spaceship, and a voluble computer-generated wizard that bore a disturbing resemblance to a bathrobe-clad George Carlin-the ceremony in Toulouse, France, that marked the completion of Airbus's first A380 was nothing if not pomp-filled. But when four kids finally tugged on a huge tasseled cord and the curtain fell to reveal the largest jetliner ever built, the spectacle was just beginning.
The A380´s wings span 262 feet, 50 feet more than a 747, the biggest commercial jet flying today. Fully loaded, the plane will weigh 1.25 million pounds, carrying one third more passengers than a 747 in 1.5 times the floor space but making only half as much noise. And the A380 burns 12 percent less fuel per seat than a 747-80 passenger miles per gallon, about as much gas per passenger, per mile, as a Ford Taurus with three people on board.
The airline CEOs who turned out to welcome the A380 have signed contracts to buy a total of 149 of the giants, worth $40 billion. The plane seats 535 passengers in the usual intercontinental three-class mix, while giving passengers more room to stretch. Virgin Atlantic chair Richard Branson, whose airline has ordered half a dozen, joked at the ceremony that with a casino and first-class double beds, "there'll be two ways to get lucky on a Virgin A380."
A380 No. 001 is the product of a colossal decade-long industrial and technological effort that has spanned the world and will probably cost more than $15 billion before Singapore Airlines, the first customer in the delivery queue, receives an airplane. The new final-assembly buildings at Toulouse are designed to produce about one A380 a week by 2008.
Airbus is clearly banking on the A380´s high-domed forehead and knitted-brow expression becoming ubiquitous at megahub airports. Boeing, which has dismissively predicted that Airbus will sell only 400 of its new heavyweights, has a different vision: Its new 223-passenger 787 is designed to bypass huge hubs, instead linking midsize cities. The first A380s will enter service in mid-2006; the plane should first reach JFK, in Air France colors, in the summer of 2007.