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Hamburg Readies for Arrival of Super Jumbo

With the completion of a massive new hanger and construction of others underway, Hamburg's Airbus plant is buzzing with anticipation of the A380 super jumbo, which it will begin building in August.

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Airbus's new mighty bird will take to the skies in 2006. But construction in Hamburg starts this August.

The buzz at the Airbus plant in Hamburg's Finkenwerder neighborhood is palpable. One and a half years ago, this was one of the largest fresh-water mudflats in Germany. Today, it's a massive 140 hectare (346 acre) sand landfill, complete with its own mini-Saharan sand storms. Cranes on the horizon are putting together the pieces of the massive hangars where the assembly of the company's new super jumbo jet will commence in August. The manufacture of Airbus's A380 is considered the most ambitious industrial project currently underway in Germany.

The largest passenger jet in history, the A380 will carry over 500 passengers over distances as great as 16,000 kilometers (9,942 miles) per flight. By comparison, U.S. competitor Boeing's 747 jumbo jet can carry about 400 people, while traveling a maximum distance of 14,000 kilometers.

Though the A380 has not yet been built, Airbus executives are already rattling off superlatives and calling it the "Flagship of the 21st Century." When the first plane goes into service in 2006, it will mark the first time Airbus competes with Boeing with a full fleet of aircraft – from small commuter-friendly jets to luxury wide-body jumbos for longer hauls. The universal cockpit designs on many Airbus planes means that pilots trained on one plane can fly on many others, reducing staff costs and adding to Airbus' attraction for airlines.

"A very important advantage of the A380 is it offers 15 to 20 percent lower operating costs for airlines than the biggest aircraft in use today," says Airbus spokesman Theodor Benien. "It can also carry up to 550 passengers. Those are economic considerations that are very important for an airline."

A multi-billion euro investment

But those savings have come with considerable research and development costs. Airbus plans to spend a total of €11.7 billion ($13.5 billion) for the development of its super jumbo, including €2.5 billion in government loans. So far at least, its risk appears to be paying off. Despite the slump in air flight due to the SARS crisis in Asia and Canada and fears of a terrorist attack, the company has already booked 129 orders for the new jet, primarily from Asia and the Middle East. Most recently, at June's Paris Air Show, Airbus announced orders from Korean Air and Emirates for the A380 in deals totaling close to €6.5 billion ($7.5 billion). Airbus executives have projected that they must sell a minimum of 250 planes in order to make the expensive project pay off.

"Our market research has shown that the Asia-Pacific Region, especially, will be a growth market. In that regard, it's going to be a very important market for us – and we'll be concentrating on this world region," says Benien.

Airbus Fertigung in Hamburg

Airbus plant in Hamburg-Finkenwerder

In recent months, Airbus has shown great success in tapping that market. The company recently announced purchasing agreements for 81 Airbus planes, totaling more than €17.4 billion ($20 billion), with pledged purchases of the A380 particularly strong. The recent growth in sales represents a stark contrast to Boeing, which in recent months has been forced to cut 30,000 jobs due to shrinking sales. Airbus, meanwhile, is planning on adding 2,000 new jobs related to the A380 project at Finkenwerder alone.

And that's only part of the good news. Last month, it announced it had surpassed Boeing for the number of passenger jets on order. But that won't be enough to transform Hamburg's Finkenwerder neighborhood into a German Seattle overnight – there are still considerable hurdles to be cleared.

Not in our backyard lawsuits

For example, Airbus is still at odds with neighbors in Finkenwerder and the posh, villa-speckled hillsides of Blankenese, just across the Elbe River, over the extension of the plant's runway. Local residents even purchased land from farmers to prevent Airbus from expanding its production facilities or stretching its landing pad. But the city-state is planning the passage of a new law that would ease Airbus' future expansion. And German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has said he will support legislation in the Bundesrat, Germany's upper legislative chamber, that would permit the government to expropriate private property for the benefit of corporate airports like the one maintained by Airbus.

The battle with environmentalists over the filling of the Mühlenberger Loch also persists. Hamburg spent more than €675 million to complete the landfill project, which eliminated 20 percent of the mudflats. More than 200 lawsuits brought on by neighbors and environmental groups have been filed in court. The plaintiffs are seeking a court ruling that would require Airbus to halt construction and return the land to its original wetlands state.

Environmentalists have argued that the wetland mudflats are an important station on migratory and breeding paths for volatile species of birds and fish along the Elbe River.

"Wetlands recovery would mean that the 170 hectare area would be reproduced in its original constitution," said Manfred Braasch of the environmental and conservation group BUND Hamburg.

But a considerable amount of construction work has already been completed. In May, Chancellor Schröder visited Finkenwerder for the opening of the first production hangar, which measures an impressive 228 meters (748 feet) long and 120 meters wide, roughly the length of two football fields.

If the environmentalists succeed, it could put an end to the production of the A380 super jumbo in Finkenwerder altogether, leaving Toulouse, France, as the exclusive assembly location. But with whole portions of the facility already completed and full government support behind Airbus, it is likely that after assembly begins on the first plane in August, the A380 will become an important symbol of Hamburg's economic might. Meanwhile, Airbus's Finkenwerder plant has grown to become the third largest airline assembly line in the world after Seattle and Toulouse.

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