Airbus unveiled its flagship A380 yesterday, the plane on which the company is betting its newfound status as the world's leading jet maker as well as the US$13 billion cost of developing the "superjumbo."
The largest ever passenger jet was revealed during a lavish ceremony at Airbus' headquarters in Toulouse, southern France, attended by European leaders and almost 5,000 guests.
Airbus has already taken firm orders for 139 of the US$280 million planes, with options on dozens more, and says the program will break even after 250 sales -- an objective it hopes to reach within three years.
"We're already well ahead of our own business plan," said Airbus CEO Noel Forgeard in an interview published on Monday in financial daily La Tribune.
Airbus trailed Boeing Co until 2003, when it delivered more planes than its US rival for the first time -- a feat it matched last year, with 320 deliveries to Boeing's 285, and it is likely to repeat the feat this year.
Sustaining that lead will depend partly on the outcome of Airbus' audacious bet on strong demand for the new behemoth, with its 80m wingspan and a tail that stands as high as a seven-story building.
Airbus hopes to sell 750 superjumbos to airlines operating services between the busiest airports, mainly in Asia, which serve as hubs, or stopovers between connecting flights.
Boeing, on the other hand, sees demand for only 400 jets larger than its 747 over the next two decades, as air passengers increasingly gravitate toward direct flights aboard a new generation of smaller, long-range jets like its planned 7E7.
In a three-class cabin layout, the A380 seats 33 percent more passengers than the 747 but offers 49 percent more floor space -- leaving additional room for features such as on-board shops, bars, casinos or even nurseries, which could fundamentally alter the experience of taking a long-haul flight.
How the extra space is used will be left up to the airlines, whose A380 cabin designs have remained closely guarded. In the future, low-cost carriers could operate the A380 with a single economy-class configuration accommodating as many as 800 passengers.
The superjumbo's entry into service next year is also a challenge to stretched airport infrastructure. Research group Frost & Sullivan says Airbus' biggest problem isn't the demand for the superjumbo, which it sees as potentially even higher than Airbus' own estimates.
"This is all very nice, but if you don't have airports that can handle the A380 it won't work," said Johan Orsingher, a senior consultant with the group.
London's Heathrow airport says it is spending over US$800 million providing everything from double-decker passenger ramps to enlarged baggage conveyors capable of processing 555 passengers on one flight.
Other airports are spending billions more on similar improvements, but there is concern that some may not be ready in time.
Even Paris Charles de Gaulle, which is home to A380 customer Air France, has just two A380-ready gates.
Operator Aeroports de Paris insists its airport will be ready for the plane, despite last year's partial collapse of the new terminal where they are both situated.
Airports in the US are also thought to be behind, although Orsingher said major airports in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta will have no choice but to catch up quickly.