TOULOUSE, France -- Its wings stretch nearly the length of a football field, about 50 feet longer than any plane in the air today. Nose to tail it is longer than two blue whales. Inside the cabin, it has room for at least 550 passengers -- and as many as 1,000.
The world's largest commercial airplane, the Airbus A380, sits in a factory here in southwestern France, awaiting its unveiling next month. Then in the spring, the plane faces a critical flight test that Airbus SAS hopes will answer naysayers' questions about the million-pound behemoth. Safety experts have raised concerns about how airlines will be able to evacuate so many passengers in an emergency. Pilots worry whether runways are wide enough to accommodate the huge plane in the event of an engine failure. Airports from Washington's Dulles to Singapore's Changi are spending millions of dollars to strengthen taxiways and build double-decker jet bridges for quick boarding to avoid cramped terminals.
An artist rendition of Airbus Industrie's new A380 airplane.
(Airbus Industrie via AP)
The A380 poses a profound threat to Boeing Co.'s crown jewel, the 747, which has reigned as the largest passenger plane for the past 30 years. It symbolizes the latest blow to Boeing's once-predominant position in aircraft manufacturing. Airbus, which receives funding from four European countries, surpassed Boeing last year to become the world's biggest maker of commercial airplanes.
The $12 billion superjumbo, already $2 billion over budget, offers luxury options never enjoyed aboard a commercial airliner. Passengers will be greeted on the lower deck not by a cramped galley but by a wide staircase to the upper level where first- and business-class passengers will be seated. Each first-class seat will fold open into a bed stretching the depth of two or three rows of coach. On the lower deck, the coach section will look similar to airlines today, with just an extra inch of width in each seat. Airbus envisions that airlines will use the ample space aboard the long-haul plane for cocktail lounges, waterfall fountains and private suites that serve as in-air bedrooms and double as business meeting areas.
The Airbus A380 is "the new modern airplane of the future," said John Leahy, an American who is Airbus's executive vice president for customer affairs. "Just like the 747 -- it changed the way we flew so we could cross oceans and it gave us more space. [The A380] will be more the mentality of a cruise ship . . . to get up, have a drink, visit with some friends."
But skeptics doubt that many airlines will invest in costly luxuries when they place their orders. Instead, they say, the carriers will likely want to cram as many passengers aboard as possible to maximize profit.
Several U.S. airline executives and consultants said the plane's size will result in passengers feeling like cattle -- first crammed into an airport terminal and then slowly loaded onto the plane. "What's in it for me to sit on an airplane with 500 other people, wait for my bags with 500 other people, check in with 500 other people?" Gordon Bethune, chief executive of Continental Airlines, asked a travel industry group last year.
Airbus is convinced that the huge plane is the right model for increasingly congested skies and shifting patterns of global wealth. As crowded international hubs begin to limit the number of flights from each carrier, Airbus believes the A380 -- with 144 more seats than the 747 -- will be regarded as the more profitable aircraft.
"There will be quite a few more people flying than today," Leahy said. "We can't just keep putting people into more and more airplanes."
Airbus envisions vast increases in air travel in Asia and the Middle East, with much slower growth in the United States. The company hopes to sell more than half of its superjumbos to airlines in developing nations in Asia, where a growing middle class doesn't fly very much now but increasingly has the financial means to do so. Company executives point to figures that show China's aviation industry is rapidly expanding, with an expected growth of 8.5 percent annually over the next several years.