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Tuesday April 26,  2:05 PM ET

Airbus A380 Set for Maiden Flight Before 50,000

By LAURENCE FROST, AP Business Writer

BLAGNAC, France - After 11 years of preparation and $13 billion in spending, the world's largest passenger plane, the Airbus A380, is scheduled to fly for the first time on Wednesday.

Weather permitting, Airbus test pilots will power the four engines on a test model of the 555-seat "superjumbo" to lift its 308-ton frame aloft. About 50,000 onlookers are expected for what some are calling the biggest aviation event since Concorde's first flight in 1969.

The first A380 flight is tentatively set to begin around midmorning and could last for much of the day as the plane circles the region, beaming back real-time measurements of 150,000 parameters to Airbus headquarters from its 20 metric tons (22 tons) of on-board test instruments.

Industry analysts are keeping a close watch on Airbus, which hopes to woo customers away from rival Boeing Co. with the A380 but has yet to prove that it can turn a profit on its superjumbo investment, a third of which came from came from European governments.

As Airbus and Boeing spar over what each calls unfair government subsidies for the other, the rival aircraft manufacturers have staked their success on competing visions of the future of commercial air travel.

The A380, with a catalogue price of $282 million, represents a huge bet that international airlines will need bigger aircraft to transport passengers between ever-busier hub airports. But some analysts say signs of a boom in the market for smaller wide-body planes, such as Boeing's long-range 787 "Dreamliner," show that Airbus was wrong to focus so much time and money on its superjumbo.

Just this week, Air Canada said it had firm orders for 32 new Boeing jets, including 14 787s, with a list value of about $6 billion, and Air India announced plans to order 50 Boeing jets worth $6.8 billion. Air India wants 27 of the 787s, which will carry up to 257 passengers and have a list price of $120 million, boosting total orders and commitments for the plane to 237. The 787, which was launched a year ago, is scheduled to enter service in 2008.

"If the A380 costs Airbus the mid-market then it's the biggest misinvestment in aerospace history since Concorde," said Richard Aboulafia of the U.S. consultancy Teal Group. "The way the market's changing makes this look more like a science fair project every day."

Airbus, a unit of European Aeronautic Defence and Space Co., is also planning to bring its own mid-sized jetliner, the A350, into service in 2010 — two years after the Boeing 787, but the United States government is demanding that no European government launch aid be extended for the A350.

So far, Airbus has booked 154 orders for the A380, which it says will carry passengers 5 percent farther than Boeing's longest-range 747 jumbo at a per-passenger cost up to one-fifth below its rival's.

While plane enthusiasts have lined fences in recent days at the airport in the Toulouse suburb of Blagnac, where Airbus is headquartered, Airbus has warned that the first flight of the A380 — already about a month behind schedule — could be further delayed by any unforeseen weather conditions.

A strong southerly wind from the Mediterranean would mean automatic postponement, since it would require a takeoff over the town — considered too risky for a test flight.

Aviation experts say risks remain very slim on the maiden test flight since a plane's aerodynamic characteristics are already well known before it takes off, thanks to years of computer modeling and wind-tunnel tests.

Problems are more likely, but still very rare, later in the test-flight program, when the pilots deliberately take the plane to its limits. An Airbus A330 prototype crashed here in July 1994, killing chief test pilot Nick Warner and six others as they conducted a simulated engine failure exercise.

Airbus chief test pilot Jacques Rosay, flight captain Claude Lelaie and four fellow crew members will take no chances. They will wear parachutes during the first flight, in accordance with Airbus policy. A handrail leads from the cockpit to an escape door that can be jettisoned if the pilots lose control of the plane.

The test-flight program is likely to finish soon before the A380 enters service for Singapore Airlines in mid-2006, Airbus said — about three months behind the previous schedule.

Part of the delay is down to the superjumbo's struggle with a weight problem that consumed months of engineering time and most of the program's $1.88 billion in cost overruns. Competitive pressure on airlines to offer plusher business-class seating tightened the squeeze — compounded by the A380's sheer scale.

Whichever way the wind blows in Toulouse on Tuesday, the A380 seems certain to become a milestone in civil aviation history alongside the 747 and Concorde. Unlike the supersonic Concorde, however, whose claim to fame was how fast it crossed the Atlantic, this latest fruit of European aerospace cooperation will ultimately be judged on how fast it makes money.

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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