Airbus A380 unveiled at French plant

 - January 31, 2007, 4:38 AM

Airbus last month unveiled its first complete A380 double-decker, making the European consortium the builder of the world’s biggest passenger airplane. In the high-profile January 18 ceremony at the Toulouse final assembly facility in Southern France, the European manufacturer unveiled to 5,000 guests, among them four heads of state, F-WWOW, which will be the first of the 555-seaters to fly.

The first flight is tentatively scheduled for late next month, a slight slippage from the late-2004 target announced at the program’s  launch in 2000. Airbus is now in a race to obtain certification in time to meet the airplane’s planned entry into service. Singapore Airlines has pegged the inaugural commercial flight for the spring of next year, between London and Singapore.

Four aircraft will participate in the 2,000-hour flight-test program. The first aircraft will be fitted with four Rolls-Royce Trent 900 turbofans, each providing 70,000 pounds of thrust. The UK-based engine manufacturer earned EASA certification for the Trent 900 in October last year. A380 customers can choose between the Trent and the competing GP7200 from the Engine Alliance, a joint venture between General Electric and Pratt & Whitney.

Airbus has been cagey about the A380’s target and actual operating weight empty but insists the airplane will meet performance guarantees. (Airbus now says the typical target OWE is 608,400 pounds and mtow 1,235,000 pounds.) The program will also likely be over budget, Airbus CEO Noël Forgeard acknowledged recently. Total development cost could exceed the initial estimate of $10.7 billion by $1.9 billion.

Yet Forgeard maintains that the breakeven point remains 250 aircraft. Airbus has so far received firm orders for 139 A380s, in addition to 10 “commitments.” List price ranges from $263 million to $286 million, depending on options. However, according to French financial daily Les Echos, A380 customers have negotiated a price close to $180 million.

At the Toulouse factory, four A380s have been assembled so far. Assembly of the fifth aircraft–destined to be one of the first to enter service next year–will start this month. The production rate eventually will ramp up to four aircraft a month, but the final assembly line can produce up to eight A380s a month.

The standard configuration for the A380 is 555 seats in three classes. However, its maximum capacity is much higher. For example, the manufacturer will conduct emergency evacuation tests with 853 volunteers on board. The stretched version that Airbus is already considering may even approach the 1,000-seat mark.
According to John Leahy, Airbus chief commercial officer, the additional fuselage plugs the manufacturer is considering could seat a maximum of 100 passengers.

Customer airlines have chosen a variety of cabin layouts. For example, Air France’s aircraft will have 538 seats. The French carrier’s COO, Pierre-Henri Gourgeon, told AIN that this configuration would consist of nine seats in first class, 80 in business and 449 in economy. Air France economy-class passengers will not benefit from the additional space the A380 provides. “The pitch will be the same as in our Boeing 747s,” Gourgeon said.

Flamboyant Virgin Atlantic CEO Sir Richard Branson delighted in describing his airline’s A380 interior, which will have fewer than 500 seats, bars, a duty-free shop, a casino and even bedrooms. Sir Richard also, characteristically, did not miss the opportunity to entertain the audience by predicting that “Along with the casino, our double beds will give passengers two chances of getting lucky.”

Etihad Airways might have the lowest density aboard its A380s. According to chairman Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saif Al Nahyan, the layout will be based on “450 to 470 seats.” Emirates is planning two seating capacities with the same airframe–500 and 653 seats.

But a number of airlines declined to provide cabin configuration details at this early stage of the program. “We do not want to give ideas to our competitors,” Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ CEO, told AIN. Singapore Airlines and Korean Air also stayed mum.

Will we see an executive A380 one day? “We had a couple of prospects before 9/11, but our potential customers have dropped the idea since,” Leahy told AIN. Still, he added, it is “inevitable” Airbus will deliver such a special variant at some point.