Airbus launches superjumbo

Just over a week ago, in a move that is likely to give its only competitor, Boeing, sleepless nights, the European consortium, Airbus Industrie, announced the formal launch of its program to build the world's biggest civilian aircraft with a carrying capacity of 555 passengers as compared to the 416 its rival can carry. Estimated to cost $10.7 billion to develop, this is the most ambitious civil aircraft program ever undertaken by the European aerospace industry.

Christened the A380 the go-ahead for the commencement of the program was given by the company's supervisory board after Airbus had secured nearly 50 confirmed orders from six airlines, with options-to-buy for another 42 aircrafts. The development program should see the launch of the A380 by early 2006. The six airlines who have placed orders include Singapore Airlines, Emirates Airlines, Qantas, Air France, Virgin Atlantic and the International Lease Finance Corporation.

Currently the large aircraft market has been dominated by the Boeing Company, which had a 30-year monopoly with its highly successful 747 series of jumbo jets. The launch of the A380 effectively brings to an end that monopoly and pitches the European manufacturer against Boeing in all the segments of the jet aircraft market over 100 seats. This achievement is clearly a major breakthrough for Airbus, which according to the 1999 Airbus Industrie Global Market Forecast pegs the demand for this type of aircraft to be around 1,200 jets in the next 20 years.

The launch, which will see the UK, French, German and Spanish governments backing it with a $2.5 billion soft loan, was not without any drama. The Boeing Company made a last ditch effort to stall the program by getting the US president Bill Clinton to issue a serious warning to European Union leaders that government support for the A380 program could lead to a trade war. European leaders are, however, very clear that the loans to Airbus were well within the framework of the bilateral accord on the financing of civil aircraft programs signed with the US in 1992.

According to company releases, Airbus plans to roll out at least six variants of its A380 superjumbo. These range from a 481-seater aircraft up to a 656-seater aircraft, besides a dedicated all-cargo version.

Airbus has also gone to unprecedented lengths to create interiors for its new offering that will present travelers a great way to fly. The company had vast mock-ups of its cabins at eight major cities in three continents. More than 1,200 frequent flyers of different sex and nationalities were interviewed for their views on the mock-ups to refine the cabin design.