The full go-ahead for the A380 passenger model, with the backing of commitments from six customers for 48 orders, sees the 555-seat passenger version designated the A380-800. A formal go-ahead for the -800F cargo variant, for which Emirates has placed two firm commitments (of its seven), has been delayed until the firm orderbook can be increased to 10-15 aircraft. Airbus expects to sign at least two more A380F customers "during the next few weeks".

Airbus chief executive Noël Forgeard says the A380 designator was chosen after a "long debate" as the "8 suggests double-decks, one on top of the other".

Other planned members of the A380 family include a 656-seat stretch and 480-seat reduced capacity version, to be known respectively as the A380-900 and -700. A longer-range version of the basic variant will be the -800R. Airbus says these will be launched when it identifies sufficient market demand.

The -700/800/900 suffixes reflect a first-time commitment to airlines that the three models will be "fully developed aircraft" at service-entry and not subject to the introduction of incremental performance enhancements which previously saw the initial version become quickly dated. "We have done this in order not to affect residual values," says Airbus chief commercial officer, John Leahy.

EADS co-chairman Manfred Bischoff believes there is a market for 750 A380s in the next 15 years. "We expect to break even at 250, and to see a return in 2011".

Most, if not all, of the present 50 firm A380 commitments are expected to be converted to the firm orders backlog in the next few weeks. Launch customers are Emirates, Air France, ILFC, Singapore Airlines (SIA), Qantas and Virgin, which have benefited from a 30% discount on the A380 catalogue price of $230 million. Philippe Jarry, vice-president, development, large commercial aircraft, says "there are some more [launch customers] in the pipeline whom we've made proposals to who are ready to sign in January". He adds: "We'll probably say OK to them as well - its in the business case."

The A380 is scheduled to make its maiden flight during the fourth quarter of 2004, and enter service with SIA in March 2006. The Rolls-Royce Trent 900, already selected by SIA, Virgin and ILFC, will be the lead certification engine. It will be followed by the rival Pratt & Whitney-General Electric Engine Alliance GP7200. The freighter is due to enter service in 2008.

Source: Flight International