TOULOUSE, France, Jan. 18 -- With theatrical ceremony before four European national leaders and 5,000 guests, Airbus SAS unveiled the world's largest airliner Tuesday, the A380, the consortium's latest effort to dominate the world's market for passenger jets.
In speeches in front of a giant hangar, Jacques Chirac of France, Tony Blair of Britain, Gerhard Schroeder of Germany and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain praised the costly development project as a pinnacle of European technology.
"When we look at this monument of human achievement, we see that Europe can't be stopped," Zapatero told the crowd. "We're capable of being a leader in science and technology when we are highly determined."
With British-built wings spanning up to 80 meters, Spanish titanium, Rolls Royce engines, and German and French engineering and assembling, the plane is regarded as a symbol of European cooperation.
Priced at about $290 million, the A380 is designed to carry a minimum of 550 passengers, with room for expansion to nearly 900. It's scheduled to make its maiden flight in a few weeks.
Singapore Airlines, whose largest planes now seat 375 people, will be the first to operate the new aircraft, beginning service in mid-2006. "At first, we'll probably have no more than 480 passengers," Chew Choon Seng, Singapore Airlines' chief executive, said in an interview.
"We'll be replacing older large aircraft with a more modern, cost-efficient, environmentally friendly aircraft, compliant with the most stringent noise and emissions regulations," he said in a statement.
The biggest operator is expected to be Emirates, the Dubai-based airline, which has ordered 45 planes. Tim Clark, president of Emirates, said that in creating the A380, Airbus has shown itself to be braver and more innovative than Boeing Co., which is developing a smaller aircraft, the 7E7 Dreamliner. Clark said the A380 makes perfect sense for places like Dubai because of the high density of travelers.
Air France plans to use the A380 for flights between Paris and Montreal. FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. are slated to use the plane for overseas cargo shipments. "You can carry a lot more with the A380 without immediate stops," said Frederick W. Smith, FedEx's chief executive. "That will be . . . definitely an advantage for us."
Airbus has outstripped Boeing in sales in five of the past six years and hopes that the new plane will further enlarge its market share.
But the company faces hurdles in turning a profit on the behemoth aircraft. So far, 14 customers have ordered 149 planes, short of the 250 that analysts say are necessary for the project to be profitable.
Last year, Virgin Atlantic delayed its order, partly concerned that airports need to enlarge certain facilities to accommodate the aircraft's broad wingspan. Airbus fears further cancellations. Its chief executive, Noel Forgeard, is fiercely campaigning to avoid criticism that it will be too costly for airports to do the necessary work in time.