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Airbus A380 Completes Historic 1st Flight
Wednesday April 27, 4:26 PM ET

By LAURENCE FROST, AP Business Writer

BLAGNAC, France - Cheered by tens of thousands of onlookers, the world's largest jetliner touched down Wednesday with puffs of smoke from its 22 outsize wheels, ending the historic maiden flight for a plane that Airbus hopes will carry it to market dominance.

Photo of Airbus A380 at Takeoff
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AP Photo: Airbus A380
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The A380's four-hour sortie past the snowcapped Pyrenees removed any doubt that the behemoth capable of carrying as many as 840 passengers is airworthy. But it did little to convince skeptics, led by U.S. rival Boeing Co., that the plane will prove profitable.

About 30,000 people watched the takeoff and landing, police said, many from just outside the airport perimeter, where whole families spent the night awaiting European aviation's biggest spectacle since the supersonic Concorde's first flight in 1969.

Applause reverberated across the airfield and adjacent Airbus headquarters in this town outside the southwestern city of Toulouse as test pilots Claude Lelaie and Jacques Rosay emerged from the big white plane with a blue tail, waving happily, with their four fellow crew members.

Flying the plane was as easy as "riding a bicycle," Rosay said. Engineer Fernando Alonso said the crew enjoyed an "extremely comfortable" flight.

"Now shareholders can sleep better at night," chief flight engineer Gerard Desbois added.

But the hats stayed on in Seattle, home to a sizable part of Boeing's operations. The superjumbo is "a very large airplane for a very small market," Boeing spokesman Jim Condelles said.

"First flights are always very interesting and exciting. It's an engineering accomplishment that Airbus should be very proud of," he said. "We just don't see a market for 1,250 of these airplanes over the next 20 years."

Condelles was referring to Airbus' global market forecast for very large jets. Boeing sees demand for just 400 jets with 450 seats or more. If Airbus is right, it could enjoy a near-monopoly in that market while Boeing scrambles to produce a competitor.

But some industry experts think Airbus — which is almost certain to outsell Boeing for a second straight year in 2005 — is more likely to end up with egg on its face after spending $13 billion over 11 years developing the A380.

"Airbus is being incredibly optimistic," said Frank Werner, an airline management specialist at Fordham University's business school in New York. "I don't think they're going to sell enough planes in a short enough time to make it financially viable."

Airbus has orders for 154 superjumbos and has said it needs 100 more to recover its investment. But the weak dollar — the currency in which passenger planes are sold — and rumors of heavy discounts on the A380's $282 million sticker price have fueled reports that the real break-even may be higher.

There are also fears that sales could suffer from decisions by big airports like Atlanta not to strengthen runways and put in the bigger boarding gates needed to handle the A380. But others — including San Francisco and New York — are preparing for the huge plane, and Werner said he expected holdouts to follow suit when airlines begin flying the superjumbo in mid-2006.

Airbus critics also say its focus on the A380 has led it to neglect the mid-size plane market, where its planned A350 is set to enter service in 2010 — two years after Boeing's 787 "Dreamliner." Airlines have ordered 237 787s so far.

Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard plays down the 787's development lead, saying the battle for the market in smaller planes will be fought over 20 years, not two. On Wednesday, he called the A380's development a "fantastic collective effort."

Shares in European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., which owns 80 percent of Airbus, closed 2.4 percent lower Wednesday at $28.48 a share. Britain's BAE Systems PLC, which owns the rest, closed down 0.6 percent at $4.81.

Whatever the criticism, the A380 launch was a major advertisement for Airbus' technological prowess and an emblem for its new status as the world's largest aircraft maker.

The jet carried 22 tons of test instruments plus extra ballast to increase its total takeoff weight to 464 tons, or about 75 percent of its maximum authorized takeoff weight for commercial flights — but already a new record for a civil airliner. The crew plans to gradually increase the ballast over a further 2,500 hours of airborne tests.

While the plane has the capability of carrying 840 passengers, airlines are planning seating configurations that will limit loads to about 550 people.

In an impromptu fly-by at Blagnac at the end of the test, the A380 passed over the runway at low speed, flaps extended, before banking confidently around for its final approach.

"It's magnificent," said Jean Begue, who worked as an industrial director on the early stages of the A380 program.


Associated Press writers John Leicester in Paris and Perrine Latrasse in Blagnac contributed to this report.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. The information contained in the AP News report may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of The Associated Press. shall not be liable for any errors or delays in the content, or for any actions taken in reliance thereon.

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