The world's biggest civil airliner made its debut near the French industrial city of Toulouse with a lavish party attended by four European heads of state. Lisa Bryant has more from Paris about the new Airbus A380 - and clashing visions about the future of the airline industry offered by Airbus's European makers and the rival U.S. company, Boeing.
The size of a soccer field and as high as an eight-story hotel, the new A380 is colossal. It is the fruit of a transnational European collaboration, and cost a hefty $15.6 billion to construct.
The new airliner represents a European gamble that the future of airline travel lies partly in giant aircraft, making marathon flights to major world airports.
French President Jacques Chirac, who attended the A380 ceremonies near Toulouse, said the aircraft demonstrated Europe's ability to realize great scientific and industrial projects.
Addressing leaders from Germany, Britain, and Spain, and about 5,000 other guests, Mr. Chirac called for many other European projects of similar size and ambition. He noted the French government's recently announced plans to create an agency dedicated to industrial innovation to help fulfill this goal.
European know-how already scored a coup last week when one of its space probes landed on a Saturn moon, Titan. Now similar European pride is resonating when it comes to the A380, which will stick to routes closer to Earth.
The new airliner is a study in luxury and cutting-edge design. It comes equipped with 555 seats, along with a gym, casino, library, shops and cocktail bar. It is also made with material that allows passengers to enjoy larger windows and higher humidity inside the cabin.
The A380's first commercial flight is expected to take place next year. But so far, only 60 airports are equipped to host the super-sized plane. And some 140 firm orders for the A380 have not even paid for its construction costs.
The European aircraft aims to replace rival Boeing's 747 jumbo jet. But Boeing is staking its future on more modest planes, aimed for medium-sized airports as well as major world hubs. The U.S. company is expected to unroll this vision with its 7E7 Dreamliner aircraft, in 2007.
Competition between Boeing and Airbus is longstanding. The United States and Europe barely avoided suing each other last week over traded accusations that each was subsidizing their respective aircraft companies.
At present Airbus has surpassed Boeing as the world's leading supplier of commercial aircraft.