Birth of a Titan
The A380 is the most massive jetliner ever built, and getting it done was an equally huge undertaking. Here, an exclusive look at the unveiling of Airbus's giant gamble
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.
Made to Order
Ready for Landing
Whale of a Tail