The Airbus A380, the biggest airliner ever built, completed a momentous maiden flight on Wednesday, winning praise across Europe as a "magnificent machine" and opening a new era in aviation history.
Airbus A380 takes to the skies
"We had a very successful first flight and thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it," said Claude Lelaie, one of the two pilots and the head of the Airbus flight division. "There are of course a lot of things to be done, but after this first experience, we now really sense the potential of this magnificent machine," he said in a statement.
The mammoth long-haul airliner, which can carry between 550 and 840 passengers, is due to enter commercial service in mid-2006, debuting with Singapore Airlines.
Tens of thousands of spectators cheered as the A380 double-decker touched down at 2:23 pm (1223 GMT) at Toulouse-Blagnac airport in southwestern after a successful flight of three hours and 54 minutes. Toulouse is the home of Airbus Industrie.
The Airbus prototype took off and landed on runway 32, dubbed the Concorde, from where the world's only supersonic jetliner made its maiden flight in 1969.
Milestone for European unity
The applause rippled across Europe, as political leaders hailed the achievement as a milestone that proves the might of European unity, a month ahead of a French referendum tipped to reject the proposed European Union constitution.
French President Jacques Chirac pointed to the "magnificent result of European industrial cooperation," and in Berlin, deputy economy minister Ditmar Staffelt called the flight "proof of Europe's high technical capabilities."
In Brussels, the European Commission called the debut a "success story." "The A380's development shows what Europe can do through cooperation and investment in skills, research and technologies," said industry commissioner Guenter Verheugen, a German national.
The inaugural flight represented a pivotal moment for the European group, which has punched its way to the top of the civil aircraft industry to challenge the Boeing 747's long dominance of the jumbo jet market. Airbus, owned 80 percent by EADS 20 percent by BAE Systems of Britain, is banking on the A380 to be the world's most profitable plane, with a 15-20 percent lower operating cost per seat.
Security was tightened on the ground and in the air. Two huge parking areas around the airport, enough to accommodate 15,000 cars, were opened and police blocked traffic on nearby roads to allow spectators to approach on foot. Overhead, normal commercial traffic at the airport was suspended only during the 15 minutes before the A380 takeoff, while officials said that airspace was being patrolled to intercept any suspicious planes.
A behemoth of the skies
It is indeed an aviation giant. The new Airbus, the only twin-deck, four-aisle airliner in the world, can accommodate up to 550 passengers -- exceeding the dimensions of everything that has ever landed or taken off from international airports across the globe.
The behemoth of the skies came about in response to the steady increase in air passengers. The German airline, Lufthansa has ordered fifteen of the super-birds, scheduled to take to the skies from 2007. With his team of 100 people Joachim Schneider is responsible for the prestigious new fleet.
“We plan to make the A380 our flagship. We want to be at the head of the pack and that is something that the passenger will ultimately notice," he said.
However, airport managers between Tokyo and Los Angeles are facing enormous challenges, and not only because they don't have the runway capacity to deal with the Airbus A380. They are faced with the logistics of de-icing a 24 meter-high aircraft tail unit, and implementing 90 second evacuation procedures.
The aviation giant will pose some practical problems on the ground
Being able to deal with the huge jet will require airport investment to the tune of an estimated 77 million euros ($100 million). In Germany, Munich airport has been technically equipped for the Airbus A380 since 2004, making it the first European airport to be set up for the plane.
However, the first German airport to be used for test flights and later for scheduled airline flights will be Frankfurt. Fraport services chief Wilhelm Bender says the airport is well equipped. “We were already prepared when Terminal 2 came into operation in 1994. Now we have to make a number of investments in the gate areas and the passenger bridges.”
High hopes for Frankfurt
Along with London and Paris, Frankfurt hopes to become one of the top three European airports for the A380. But it won't all be easy sailing for Germany’s largest airport.
Local residents who are worried about the noise have already taken legal action aimed at halting any airport extension, which means there is no certainty as to whether the construction of an additional runway planned for 2009 can go ahead.
King of the skies is not quite big enough for Emirates airline
Huge though it is, the new Airbus is still too small to be able to satisfy the expansionist tendencies of the highly profitable Arabian airline, Emirates, which is calling for planes that can seat up to 800 passengers. But the Dubai-based company has already placed orders for 43 A380’s, making it the number one customer.
With an even bigger Airbus, low-budget airlines could start operating long-haul flights profitably. But that in turn is going to require bigger airports on the routes they would fly.