In January 2005 the world's largest airliner will power down the runway at Toulouse Blagnac airport and lift into the skies above the southern French city.

The A380 will be airborne, and at that moment the European civil aviation industry will at last be able to congratulate itself on having won equality with Boeing by fielding an airliner to rival the 747.

The design, development, manufacture and flight testing of this enormous flying machine is more than a massive engineering and industrial challenge. It also completes the Airbus product range and effectively marks the coming of age of the European group as a fully integrated company.

To date, the A380 has attracted 103 orders, 17 of which are for the cargo version. While recent sales have done little to inflate the orderbook, the confidence Airbus has in the programme is amply demonstrated by its commitment to produce four aircraft a month by the end of 2008 and provide capacity for double that number.

The creation of the new Airbus company out of the original national elements in 2001 had always been necessary for the birth of the $10.7 billion A380 programme. "We would have preferred to integrate Airbus before launching the A380, but thanks to the A380 we have integrated the company a lot quicker," says the programme's executive vice-president Charles Champion.

The fierce differences between Airbus and Boeing over market projections for the A380-size category continue to prevail. Airbus currently sees a market for almost 1,100 aircraft carrying 500 passengers or more, while Boeing sees a demand for just 334. Champion remains undaunted. "People want to travel and, at the end of the day, the A380 should allow airlines to be more protected from the effects of a crisis - particularly on the big hub-to-hub routes."

Champion says there are no signs of delays or anyone cancelling orders: "I have more problems finding slots today than openings." He adds that the A380 business case "contemplates the existence of a competitor". However, with or without a Boeing successor to its enduring 400-seat design, Champion sees the A380 "taking over a large segment of the 747-400 market and above".

In personal terms, Champion has no doubt as to the importance of the A380. " I would have regretted all my life not to have had this job."



Source: Flight International