Airbus Superjumbo Wows Crowds in US Debut

LOS ANGELES ~ The giant Airbus A380 superjumbo landed on US soil for the first time this week, dazzling large crowds gathered in Los Angeles and New York to catch a glimpse of the world’s biggest passenger plane.

The 555-seat double-decker behemoth with a wingspan the size of a football pitch descended smoothly through grey, overcast skies to touch down at Los Angeles International Airport at approximately 9:28am on Monday.

Several hundred guests invited to greet the A380’s arrival exploded with cheers and applause as the plane’s wheels kissed the runway asphalt

A few minutes earlier, another Airbus A380, carrying 500 guests and flying from Frankfurt, landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

The arrival of the transatlantic test flights marked a symbolic milestone in the troubled multibillion-dollar development of the world’s biggest commercial aircraft, which has been hit by delays and several cancelled orders.

Airbus, a unit of the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, designed the plane to challenge the dominance of Boeing’s jumbo 747, but so far no US carrier has placed an order for it.

Analysts say the plane’s size is ill-suited to most US airlines, many of which are opting instead to invest in smaller aircraft.

But while US airlines have been lukewarm to the A380, the craft impressed Qantas pilot Claude Lelaei, who manned the flight into LAX.

“It’s a very easy plane to fly,” Lelaei said. “The flight was very smooth, with absolutely no problems.”

The A380 also wowed thousands of onlookers who had begun taking up vantage points around the airport hours before its arrival.

“It’s the biggest plane I’ve ever seen in my life,” said awe-struck 13-year-old Los Angeles schoolgirl Amina Gamble.

Airbus is confident the A380’s superior fuel efficiency to the 747 will eventually catch on with airlines operating popular long-haul routes.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hailed the arrival of the A380, saying jumbo jets of its ilk were the future of air travel.

“Quieter, cleaner, more fuel-efficient jumbo airliners like the A380 are the future of air travel, and this aircraft is enormous,” Villaraigosa said.

Allan MacArtor, chairman of Airbus North America, described the A380 as tailor-made for Los Angeles.

“(The A380) makes better use of restricted airport capacity, air traffic-control congestion, has far less emissions than other airplanes, burns less fuel and is substantially quieter on both landing and approach,” he said.

While in Los Angeles, the A380 will undergo tests of its airport maneuverability and terminal parking capability.

Los Angeles World Airports, the agency that manages LAX, has spent more than US$49 million on a variety of projects to accommodate the A380 and will spend another $72 million in the coming years.

Improvements are being made to runways, taxiways and boarding gates to accommodate the aircraft, which weighs 562 tons and has a wingspan of more than 80 meters. The plane is capable of carrying more than 800 passengers in an all economy-class configuration, and 555 in a standard three-class setup.

The flight is being conducted in conjunction with Qantas Airways of Australia, which has ordered 12 A380s and may buy eight more.

The first A380 for commercial use is scheduled to be delivered to Singapore Airlines in October. Delivery had been planned for last year but was delayed because of production problems, notably with the aircraft’s electrical cabling.

Singapore Airlines has ordered 19 A380s and has an option to acquire six additional planes.

Airbus has to date received 166 firm orders and purchasing intentions for the A380 from 15 carriers. Boeing eclipsed Airbus last year for the first time since 2000 in new orders, winning 1,044 orders to 790 for its European competitor.

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