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Business

Baby Airbus Spreads its Wings, Finally

The “baby” Airbus A318, the newest addition to the jet manufacturer’s family, debuted in the skies over Hamburg Tuesday. The crisis-riddled aviation industry needs the little plane to give it some much needed lift.

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Up and away -- the Airbus A318 is finally on its way.

After a four-year development phase marked by a series of blips, the first A318 was rolled out at the Hamburg Airbus plant Finkenwerder on Tuesday. Outfitted with 107 seats and a wide cabin in its normal version, the A318 then lifted off into the blue skies over Hamburg for a successful four-hour test flight.

The 31,4 meter-long single aisle short fuselage A318 flies at a medium range between 2,750 and 6,000 kilometers and is a short-bodied version of the A319. Airline executives are hoping it will prove to be the little airplane that could.

Renewed hope for ailing Hamburg plant

The inaugural event provided a dollop of fresh hope for the Hamburg Airbus plant, which has not been immune to the industry crisis that has already engulfed its headquarters in Toulouse, France.

"The successful debut flight of the A318 proves the technical competence and performing ability of Hamburg as an airline location," Airbus CEO Hans-Joachim Gante said after the flight. "In times such as these we are doubly happy about any positive news," Rainer Hertrich, CEO of the European aerospace consortium EADS, the mother company of Airbus, told the 700 employees in attendance.

In another hopeful sign for Airbus, the Hamburg senate decided to earmark €56 million for the extension of the runway at the Airbus plant from 589 to 3272 meters. The extension is needed for the landing of the cargo version of the jumbo A380, the largest passenger jet in history.

Hit by a slump in air traffic due to the SARS crisis in Asia and Canada and fears of terrorist attacks, the airline industry is reeling. The Airbus plant in Hamburg -- the third largest airline assembly line in the world after Seattle and Toulouse -- has been suffering as orders for new planes have fallen.

Only 11 aircraft instead of the planned 13 were assembled per month since January this year at the plant.

A318 runs into starting trouble

However, despite Tuesday's successful launch, the road to that point has point anything but smooth.

The plane was originally meant to be launched last year after a test flight in Hamburg in January was lauded by industry and politicians. But the A318 suffered a setback when U.S. jet engine-maker Pratt & Whitney discovered its new PW6000 engines weren’t up to quality standards and consumed too much fuel.

German aircraft engine-maker MTU then stepped in and with the help of a German technology program developed a special high pressure compressor which Pratt & Whitney used as a basis for a module that they integrated into their engines.

Though the new technology finally worked, precious time was lost. The airline industry crisis cut the original 134 orders for the A318 to 84. British Airways and Egyptair scrapped their orders for the aircraft, though nine other airlines and leasing companies have stuck to theirs.

Airbus overtakes Boeing

Denver-based Frontier airlines is also staying loyal to the A318. "We now have more Airbus than Boeing aircraft in our fleet," Frontier CEO Jeff Pottner said in Hamburg while taking charge of his first A318 purchase after her maiden flight.

Frontier already has 19 models of the A319s in its service. "The wide-ranging similarities between these two aircraft save us much time and money when it comes to training of our flight personnel," he said. Frontier is reported to have ordered a further five A318s with a 114-seat capacity, each costing $50 million.

Airbus' fortunes are also beginning to lift as the European consortium has for the first time in its history overtaken U.S. competitor Boeing by delivering more aircraft in a six-month period than its U.S. rival Boeing.

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