A380 Buzzes D.C., With Minor Bug

Airbus A380
Natalie and Ingrid Peterson walk down stairs after touring plane. Behind, Steve Peterson waves. (Carol Guzy - Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Airbus's super-jumbo A380 jetliner concluded its tour of the United States yesterday with a dramatic fly-by near downtown Washington -- earning oohs and aahs from a handpicked group of passengers that included U.S. government officials, journalists and analysts.

Most passengers agreed that the hulking plane was impressive: It is the largest civilian aircraft ever made, with two decks of seats, a bar, bathrooms with windows and snazzy, in-flight entertainment systems. Engineers worked to make the A380 extremely quiet in flight -- passengers could barely hear the howl of the plane's powerful engines on takeoff. Thanks to design features, it didn't bounce much in turbulence.

Even the cabin air seemed fresher than on other aircraft, passengers said.

"It's quite an airplane," said Mark V. Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, a few minutes after the plane flew past the Washington Monument. "It's very impressive. It's nice to be part of the beginning of something in aviation history."

But Rosenker's assessment and the applause that greeted a smooth touchdown belie serious troubles with the jet and the European aircraft maker. Airbus has shed billions of dollars trying to fix production problems that have pushed back delivery of the A380 by two years. Two cargo companies have dropped orders for 20 of the jets.

Airbus, which has taken 156 orders for the plane, will have to sell about 400 to break even on its production costs, executives said yesterday.

The first A380 is scheduled to be delivered to Singapore Airlines in October.

Airbus executives worked hard yesterday to put their best spin on the A380's arrival in the Washington area. The company's top salesman, John Leahy, greeted passengers and reporters as they entered the plane to take a tour and, later, an 80-minute flight around the Washington area.

He said Airbus was conducting the U.S. tour -- it showed off the A380 in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago before heading to Washington -- to prove that the plane was ready for service. He also wanted to reassure airports, which have invested millions to accommodate the jet, that the money was well spent.

"It's two years late, and people want to see what their money got them," Leahy said.

The flight and tours yesterday may have paid off -- in some ways.

Most passengers and reporters agreed that the plane was remarkable and massive. Many complained that they were not able to get the aircraft into a single frame for photographs.

But others questioned whether the A380 was practical and pointed to a minor snafu that highlighted its hulking size.

The jet has cameras mounted at various points outside on the body, allowing passengers to watch the scenery as the A380 hurtles through the air.

On takeoff, a camera atop the plane's tail was struck by a bug. The smashed insect slightly obscured the camera's image. Passengers soon discovered that there was no automated system to clean the lens and watched the entire flight with the image of the insect on their screens.

The lens, about 80 feet above the ground, will be cleaned by a worker with a rag sent aloft on a crane.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company